Cricket: Taylor's matadors put England to the sword

We have our moments and win the odd Test but, reflects Derek Pringle, it is Australia who always rise to the occasion
Click to follow
The Independent Online
"What is wrong with English cricket? Why are the Australians so vastly superior to us?" These are perennial questions it seems, for the reason they appear in quotation marks, is that they come from a chapter in a book by Bill O'Reilly, called Cricket Conquest, a journal about the 1948 Ashes tour.

In that summer, England lost 4-0 to what is now regarded as probably the greatest Australian side to tour. In assessing the question, O'Reilly, the Shane Warne of his day, felt that there were few times that England seemed to have a "Bolter's chance" of winning a Test match.

Fifty years on, and little has changed, for England could quite have easily lost this series 4-1 as opposed to 3-2. More revealing than the scoreline however, is that all three of Australia's victories came in a row and were won by country miles; games in which England performed as meekly as choirboys in a frontier tavern.

Although undeniably capable of intermittent brilliance, it is rigour and imagination that England mostly lack, and not only among the players. As Australia announce bold plans to select separate Test and one-day sides for the future, as well as provide better pay for its players, England's policy makers are still squabbling around a table playing footsie.

Held back, distracted by the petty self-interest of their second masters, the county clubs, confusion reigns, and the players reflect this in their cricket. Australia on the other hand, are resilience personified.

Arriving jaded after their series against South Africa, and distracted by rumblings over the suitability of their captain, they looked ripe for the taking. So ripe, that when they lost both the one-day series and the first Test, the worry lines began to appear. But, although consummately outplayed by England, something vital occurred in Birmingham: Mark Taylor scored a battling hundred. In a single stroke, all the speculation regarding the captaincy, had been removed and from that moment on they were a side united in a collective cause to win the Ashes.

Of course it helps to have matchwinners. But while England have their quality players they do not seem to share their counterparts' sense of occasion. Whenever the "big ask" was required, thoroughbreds like Steve Waugh, Glenn McGrath, Warne and Ian Healy nearly always deliver. Like skilled matadors, they know exactly where and when to wound an opponent.

In cold figures alone, Graham Thorpe and Nasser Hussain scored more runs than Steve Waugh. The difference however, is that Waugh produced the bulk of his when his side most needed them, and his two centuries at Old Trafford, which got Australia back into the series, must rate amongst the finest ever played on covered pitches.

Had Waugh not delivered, England, in all likelihood, would have been two up with three to play. A position, which if not exactly deserved, would probably not have been squandered.

Although the inclement weather helped to disguise the matter, England had decided to play this series - at least until the dustbowl at The Oval - on slow grassy pitches.

To some this was pure folly. To others it was a risk worth taking, and one that until McGrath began hitting the right length and Paul Reiffel was whistled up from his sofa in Melbourne, had had its moments.

What those behind the scheme failed to realise though, was how it would affect some of England's key batsmen, and both Thorpe and Alec Stewart lost confidence.

Recovering his form, Thorpe ended the series as England's leading run- scorer with 453 runs. However, between his century in the first Test at Edgbaston and the flat pitch for the fifth at Trent Bridge, he contributed just 91 runs in six innings.

Thorpe was not alone and in six Tests, there were only five occasions when England batsmen passed 50 in the first innings, which is where Test matches are usually controlled and won.

But was this a weakness in just the batting, or were the bowlers also allowing the opposition the luxury of too many four balls? Quite probably it was a combination of both and in a six-match series where England's highest total was 478 for 9, Australia managed five scores higher than the 313, that was England's next best.

And yet England's bowlers, appeared to remain far more competitive than their batting counterparts. Providing injury does not blight them, the pace trio of Andy Caddick, Darren Gough and Dean Headley all had enough moments to bode well for the immediate future.

They were however, not in the same class as McGrath (36 wickets) and Warne (24 wickets), who with their sustained accuracy, are able to build pressure until it reaches intolerable proportions. Something Atherton - McGrath's victim seven times in the series - found to his cost

Between them, the pair provide both the first line of attack as well as the back line of defence, while anything in between, was mopped up by Gillespie, Kasprowicz and Reiffel. This is where the real difference lay and where it has lain ever since 1948.

As O'Reilly concluded even then: "The lot of an English professional bowler, chosen for England, is not a rosy one. He not only has to bowl in the more important matches for his country, but is expected to turn out the next day if need be, to do the hack work for his county." We can hardly claim we were weren't warned.