Cricket: Wanted: Runs, rabbits, runs

England's tail-enders really are being taught about technique.
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The Independent Online
NOT THE least rib-tickling part of England's latest Ashes defeat was the exhibition of the lower order. From the way they played, rib-tickling of another kind must also have been what they suspected was about to be inflicted on them by the Australian fast bowlers.

It was not so much that the last four second-innings wickets fell for two runs in the blink of an eye, it was the way they fell. They departed with barely a whimper, lbw, caught behind, lbw and bowled, the only hint of bat on ball being the nick to the wicketkeeper.

The whole, hugely entertaining farrago was embodied by the last wicket of all. Alan Mullally was presumably already preparing for the Third Test in Adelaide because that was the direction he appeared to be going, backwards, when he essayed the cross-batted swipe to the Jason Gillespie full toss which bowled him. Laughing until you were fit to burst was important because the alternative was to cry a river.

Graham Gooch, the tour manager, said of the tail's batting that he expected more. "It's well-documented that we're not expecting the lower order to provide a major source of runs in a Test match but we want them to support the batsmen, spend some time at the crease and be difficult to get out. I'm not mincing my words because they know how I feel. They know they have to sell their wicket dearly."

Unfortunately, that slice of Gooch spleen was vented not after the defeat in the Second Test in Perth but when the tail similarly took up their bats and got the hell out of it as quickly as possible in the First Test in Brisbane. If they were listening, then the jet lag on landing in Western Australia must have played havoc with their exact understanding of the definition of a forward defensive stroke in approximate line with the ball.

All three members of the nine, 10, jack formation acquired ducks, a feat not achieved as often as might be suspected if only because one of them is usually left not out. While England were outplayed in other aspects at the WACA and the lightning quick pitch made it a complicated business for the upper batting echelon to construct well-fashioned strokes, let alone their disconcerted junior comrades, the rapidity of the collapse again re-emphasised the present shortcomings of England's tail.

Last winter in the Caribbean an attempt was made to address this by giving each batsman a batting buddy on whom he could bestow advice, wisdom and coaching. It was not noticeably successful and has been largely abandoned in Australia (though surely not because the batsmen are suffering enough problems of their own).

Only two players in the party have teamed up as a nets pair, Mark Ramprakash and Alex Tudor. As Ramprakash says in his Independent on Sunday column opposite today, his young partner is constantly eager and willing to practise his batting. This policy at least brought reward in the Perth first innings with a sensible, unbeaten 18, if not in the second when Tudor was one of the final three ducks.

But it is not for the lack of practice among others that the tail is so limp. According to frequent observers of England's training sessions all the players are facing proper bowling in the nets. On some tours the batsmen face the bowlers who are then left with no proper bowling when it comes to their turn.

But in Australia there are both the facilities and the personnel. Local net bowlers have been brought in as have England county players such as Andy Oram and Ben Phillips. Gooch devotes abundant time to the task of improving technique. He is credited with much of the improvement in the style of Robert Croft, who is a much tighter player than he was, thanks to the manager's attention.

The others have all had copious time at the crease, if not in the middle. Peter Such, so far a surplus spinner in the party, is regularly to be seen batting just in case the call comes. Yet the nets have not worked and Gooch may need to re-think his strategy or issue another lecture.

Still, that swat of Mullally's after his crude hook in Brisbane was simply side-splitting.