Cricket: Waugh in need of a new boon

John Benaud in Sydney studies the form lines behind an Aussie batting dilemma
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ONE of sporting life's certainties: the All Blacks will make a far greater impact on the English winter than their cricketing counterparts, the Kiwis, will make on the Australian summer.

After a couple of promising early flutters Stephen Fleming's fledglings plummeted back to earth on the final day of the First Test in Brisbane; early, they had the Australians five for a hundred, and both Waughs out, so to be beaten by 186 runs was not the close-run thing those of anti-Australian sentiment had anticipated.

The inquests confirmed what logic decreed: the Kiwis were sub-Test standard and only complacency or the worst of a bad pitch - now a distinct possibility at the WACA where the curator has just resigned - could sink the Australians.

A more pressing matter arising from the Test was the form, or lack of it, being shown by Mark Waugh. The softness of his Ashes tour batting, when his 200-run bottom line was as reassuring as that of the much maligned Mark Taylor, has continued into the Australian summer; his focus seems haphazard.

Clear evidence of that is a rash of dropped catches uncharacteristic of the safest hands in the business; the former captain Ian Chappell, an acknowledged tough marker, once announced that if he was a selector Mark Waugh would be his first chosen - for his fielding.

At the crease, in a lead-up match to the Test and then in the Test itself, Waugh executed a couple of "one-day shots", one a lackadaisical, head- in-the-air swipe, the other a careless wave of the bat at a near wide. According to a leak from the selection room, one summer ago similar indiscretion cost the brilliant Michael Slater his Test spot.

Mark Waugh's Test batting has been in gentle decline for a while, notably from the moment David Boon retired. We all remember Boon with fondness, the doughty Australian No 3 a cricketing Ayers Rock, the engine block of Australia's batting. Boon of the metre-wide bat.

Statisticians might appreciate this; in his 69-Test career Waugh has figured in 27 century partnerships, 11 of which were with Boon. Nine of those partnerships coincided with Waugh's most successful run in the Test game, from 1992 until Boon's retirement.

Of Waugh's 11 Test centuries, eight were scored while Boon was around to offer sage advice. Since Boon left 15 Tests ago. Waugh has scored a lonely, but lovely, century.

Anyone inclined towards recommending that the executioner don the black cap in Waugh's presence might be wiser to spend some time thinking about that moment. It was his match-turning innings of 116 against South Africa at Port Elizabeth before the Ashes summer when Australia needed 270 in the fourth innings and eventually got there after being half out for less than 200.

Waugh thought it was his "best century ever at any level, given the circumstances of the match". Nervous Nellies should note that this gilt-edged occasion was only six months ago, hardly time for someone as talented as Waugh to "lose it".

There is another aspect to Waugh's form drop-off that should be considered; the retirement of Boon also left a gap at the top of Australia's limited- overs batting, and Waugh, the Test No 4, was promoted to No 1 in the one-day team.

The term "comfort level" can mean anything in cricket these days, from a television commentator talking about temperatures in the middle to a player's temperament. And it is true that players do get comfortable about their role in a team, which is not to say that they are lazy, or less intense.

It's a "feel for the job" thing; opening batsmen do have a different mind-set from lower order batsmen. If Waugh was moved away from No 1 in the hit-and-giggle stuff might it help re-establish him in the cut-and- thrust of Tests?

Cricket is famous for its uncertainty; Waugh chose last week in Melbourne to launch his book A Year To Remember. His fans will be praying it doesn't turn out to be a summer best forgotten.

The selectors should allow Waugh time to rediscover form in the remaining two Tests against the Kiwis, whose attack is the equivalent of medium- paced net bowlers. The tough stuff for Australia begins against South Africa in the Christmas Test. No Mark Waugh would surely raise a "ho, ho, ho" from Allan Donald and company.