Cricket: Time we were the bosses

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The Independent Online
WHEN England came to Australia we knew the score. To win the Ashes we had to play to the limits of our potential against the best side in the world. That has not happened and we have been really outplayed in all three Test matches so far.

It has been deeply disappointing for the team. We are aware we have not performed as we are capable, or as we were expected to do after beating South Africa in the summer. Losing the Ashes with two to play was not in our plans.

Defeat has been as hard to take as it is to explain (and explanations are being sought everywhere) but unfortunately sport is like that. If we knew what it took all the time we would bottle it and never play less than brilliantly. Yet while I feel there has been a good spirit and tough competition for places, too many of us have not kicked into form.

This is, to say the least, exasperating for a sportsman. We have worked hard in the nets, we have batted and bowled and fielded, but out in the middle when it has counted we have not done enough often enough. Our catching has been inadequate - good catchers, men who can snaffle anything, have put them down and I have been guilty too - and our first-innings totals have been insufficient.

Not once have we been truly in a position to boss the game. In that respect Australia have been reminiscent of the Middlesex of the Eighties and early Nineties. They have variety in their attack - spin and good pace - and they are supremely confident of making big first- innings scores, constantly wearing down the opposition.

No, England have not played as we ought but Allan Border also made a valid point a few days after the Adelaide Test. England were taking all the flak for their exhibition, he said, but perhaps Australia were not getting all the credit they deserved for their performances.

England, you can be assured, lack for nothing in desire. There are still three important matches left and we desperately want to leave here having shown them that we can play. The first of those games is going on now against an Australian XI and when we first saw the opposition team we realised how it demonstrated the depth of Australian cricket.

In effect an A team, it contains men who have made Test hundreds and a good, testing bowling attack. Some of us dwelt on this when we saw the team, particularly in the light of the change to the English county system from 2000. At present in England there are unquestionably easier games. Players coming into the county game might have a hard match but it will be followed by one in which standards are not as good.

It means that young, promising players such as Owais Shah, of Middlesex, are not constantly being tested and consequently are at risk of not hardening up as quickly as here, where every game in the Sheffield Shield matters. Two divisions is a step in the right direction but it will not provide the total answer.

It is possible that players may be willing only to sign one-year contracts in future. If a team is relegated, therefore, they might want to leave to ensure they stay in Division One. I realise there are other factors to take into account - player responsibility for a start and the system of class one and class two registration - but the idea of two divisions has to be ensure the best players are playing against each other all the time and have something to play for.

Nor is this point meant to be critical of smaller counties. Some of them have got their act together well but the fact remains that too many matches are uncompetitive and too many players are not being pushed as far as they should. Four-day cricket, contracts directly to the national board and better all-round pitches all have significance. The Australian XI in Tasmania were testimony to all the above.

I have lots of motivation for the rest of this tour. I have been pleased with my form, but I only have to think of all the low scores I have made for England in the past, all the times I feel I have not done justice to myself in Tests. I still have a lot of ground to regain.

The first innings in Adelaide left me disappointed. I had batted a long time, done the hard work, got in, helped in a recovery. Glenn McGrath got one to bounce and I parried to the slips. It happens but it should not have done. The second innings was more forgiveable, the ball swung hugely and late - but twice in the match I went to bed dreaming of making a Test hundred and twice I was denied.

It was enjoyable to play without a helmet against an all-spin attack. I think it helped me to play more freely somehow - although admittedly I didn't pick Stuart MacGill's googly in the penultimate over of the second day. Again, it shows up the lack of match practice against leg-spin.

The series, don't forget, is not yet dead. We cannot obtain what we came for, the Ashes, but we can still show Australia and the Australians that England can play cricket. It is Christmas, we are a long way from home and the disappointment of defeat only means that you miss your family all the more (in my case Vandana, my wife, and Cara, our 16-month- old daughter), but we will muster all our resources to level this rubber yet.