Ashes countdown: Should England be helping the Aussies?

County cricket clubs are falling over themselves to get Australians ready for the Ashes. Good for the game, or a sure way of derailing a return to the glory days of 2005? Former England bowler, Angus Fraser, and <i>Independent</i> cricket correspondent, Stephen Brenkley, join the debate
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The Independent Online

Angus Fraser, Middlesex CCC

There are times when people need to look at the bigger picture and the controversy surrounding the presence of Australian cricketers in England prior to this summer's Ashes is one of those occasions.

I accept it is extremely important for the welfare of English cricket that by September Andrew Strauss' side have defeated Australia and regained the "little urn". The goodwill, interest and money generated by England's unforgettable triumph over Australia in 2005 should not be underestimated, and a repeat performance would undoubtedly have a positive effect on the game here.

But the value of this iconic Test series runs deeper than swelling the coffers of the England and Wales Cricket Board and increasing participation at local cricket clubs. The future of Test cricket is currently the focus of much debate, with many people questioning its viability in a world searching for instant gratification. These are conversations true cricket lovers take no satisfaction in having, so it is important for Test cricket that the 2009 Ashes prove to be an event of high quality and high drama, as it was four years ago.

It is the explosion of Twenty20 cricket that has placed Test cricket, the form of the game widely recognised to be the pinnacle of the sport, on the back foot. Its presence and success has meant that almost every Test now played is analysed surgically. The topic varies. It could be crowds one week, pitches, scoring-rates, over-rates or umpiring decisions the next. It does not seem to matter – each is studied through a microscope.

To rid Test cricket of such unwarranted interrogation the five-day game needs to continually show the world just what magnificent sporting contests it can produce, and there is no bigger stage to prove this on then the Ashes. It is for this reason that I have little problem in Stuart Clark and Phillip Hughes, potential members of Australia's Ashes squad, playing for Kent and Middlesex prior to this summer's major sporting event.

I want the series to leave a similar mark on the game as the 2005 encounter, and if that is to be the case we need two well prepared and evenly matched sides lining up against each other in Cardiff on 8 July. Indeed, if the ECB were so worried about the first Test why is it being played in Cardiff, a virgin Test arena and therefore a ground where Strauss' side will feel as unfamiliar as the opposition? There is the small matter of the Twenty20 World Cup, too. The Indian board did not seem too worried about England's top players gaining valuable experience in the IPL before the tournament.

There are some who believe that by giving Clark and Hughes six weeks of quality cricket in April and May, Kent and Middlesex are acting in a reprehensible manner. It is a view I do not agree with and not just because I was the person responsible for Hughes joining Middlesex.

The 2005 Ashes was an outstanding event, a contest that gripped the cricketing world for more than a month, because it contained two magnificent teams who were fit, in good form and well prepared. All the big names were there too – Warne, Flintoff, McGrath, Ponting, Vaughan, Lee and Harmison, Gilchrist and Pietersen. The spectacle provided by these heavyweights' slugging it out in the most intense situations imaginable, was unmissable.

Would those who witnessed the matches, and glowed in the satisfaction each victory provided, have preferred it if Warne, McGrath, Ponting and Gilchrist were injured in 2005? Of course not. That was part of the joy. Had England defeated a team containing a load of under prepared and limited raggy-arsed rangers who nobody knew would the triumph have received the coverage it did? It is unlikely. The moment was special because, on that occasion, these great cricketers walked off The Oval as losers.

Of course every side want to seek an advantage over an opponent, it is only natural, but it could hardly be said that some of the views being expressed are those of ambitious people who truly believe in the quality of their side. Surely the idea is to be better than your opponents when they are at their best. It is the true test of greatness.

Sport at the highest level is all about bruising, debilitating encounters, the sort of which we watched in 2005. The alternative, as recently witnessed during England's Test series in the West Indies, is a turn off, and that cannot be good for the game.

In England we at times seem more concerned with what the opposition are doing than ourselves. It is hard to believe Viv Richards, or Steve Waugh harboured such worries when the West Indies and Australia were ruling the cricketing world. Like a bowler going into a match with stiff hamstring it acts as an insurance policy should things go wrong. Such negative thoughts need to be removed from the team immediately.

My desire to see England win is only beaten by the eagerness to see cricket thrive. Of course it is important for England to finish the summer as victors, but the aspirations of Strauss and his side, along with everybody at the ECB, should be to beat Australia on the basis that they are the better side, not because they caught Ponting's side when they were tired, under-prepared and playing sloppy cricket.

Stephen Brenkley, Independent cricket correspondent

All the trouble started in 1988. All the present row confirms is the inability to learn from history. That year, the captain of Australia, Allan Border, returned to Essex. Part of the reason may have been that he was pining for the architecture of Harlow and was desperate to win the Refuge Assurance League. But he had other business. Border spent the summer not only scoring runs, but gathering information, on pitches, on players, on the thought processes in English cricket.

It was sporting espionage of the highest order. The following summer, with Border leading, hard-nosed and uncompromising, Australia regained the Ashes in a series they had been confidently tipped to lose. Things were never the same again. Infamously, it took England 16 years and 42 days (not that it hurt so much that every day counted) to touch the urn once more. Border's foray into the Shires 21 years ago was not solely responsible for England's defeat. But the campaign, as Border has admitted, was assisted by his groundwork.

He was not in deep cover. He did not need to be. Until it happened nobody knew. Nor will Phillip Hughes and Stuart Clark need to use cloak and dagger techniques. They are here nominally to play a spot of county cricket at the beginning of the English summer.

The proponents of this (or the apologists) seem to be suggesting that this is a jolly good thing, because even if it does help their adjustment to English conditions it would make an England victory much the sweeter. The thrust of this position is that all is fair in sport and war.

The cases of Hughes and Clark (and indeed of Marcus North, who has signed for Hampshire) are different. Hughes is a 20-year-old country boy from New South Wales with enormous, untutored talent.

There is something engagingly rustic about his batting. He has never played in England before and something in his method suggests that what works on Australian pitches might not work on English ones. This argument might be slightly faulty, because he has been making his name (in two Tests so far) on South African pitches, possibly the least batsman friendly around.

But English pitches are traditionally more difficult for at least the opening months of the season and Hughes is being given a golden opportunity. Even if he fails he cannot help to learn. Failure might help.

Clark, a seam bowler of metronomic accuracy, has been injured throughout the Australian summer. Australia have not yet picked him, but they will. But they also recognise that he needs bowling. Kent have provided him with plenty of opportunity.

Englishmen, it is said, go in their droves to play cricket in Australia. Yes and no. They go to play club cricket, which is tough because everything about Australian cricket is tough, but they are not welcome any longer in state cricket, which is tougher and the equivalent in status if not standard to county cricket.

If Australians want to play cricket in England in an Ashes summer let them have six weeks in the Lancashire leagues. They might call us whingeing poms, they always do. Too right mate. The idea of an England cricketer being helped out by an Australian state is frankly risible.

The argument that foreign players can add something that is missing from the English game is hardly more worthy of consideration. Hughes is 20 and here to learn not to teach, Clark is here to get fit.

Nor is it the case that they are about to embark on lifelong love affairs with their new employers. After their short-term contracts are up that will be that. No old player reunions for them.

The counties employing these players, who are doubtless splendid chaps, are doing so essentially with money given to them by the England and Wales Cricket Board. This is a fee rather than a hand-out, but it is a fee intended to help provide cricketers available to play for England.

County cricket has an extremely important place in the fabric of English society, but without the England team it would simply not exist. Each county will receive, give or take, £1.85m from central funds this year. Kent announced the recruitment of Clark on the day they also announced an annual loss of £706,000.

It is true that overseas players have illuminated county cricket and that all the great West Indies fast bowlers played it at some time or other. But look what havoc they wreaked. The truth is that it was a different sporting world then.

Angus Fraser is an inspiring man from whom Phillip Hughes will learn much. Fraser is also a staunch patriot but for what he is doing now he should not be surprised if he gets a call asking for the return of his MBE. Perhaps he should make the offer first.

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