It has emerged this week that Steve Waugh's Australians are even better than we thought they were. Not only are they playing Test cricket to an amazing standard, but they are doing so while having to cope with reams of drivel from their coach.
John Buchanan has many qualities, including one that is rare among cricket people – an open mind. But the 10-page memo that he distributed to his squad, and a few journalists, shows him in an unmistakably dim light. It is far too long: any office worker would groan at a 10-pager, never mind a bunch of young men who earn their living with their hands.
It is atrociously written. Nobody gets to be coach of a national team on the strength of their prose style, but if you are a man-manager with a penchant for putting things in writing, you should at least be able to express yourself clearly and concisely. Buchanan's favoured mode of expression is cloudy and verbose. He uses inverted commas so indiscriminately that it is impossible to make out what on earth he is using them for. "We have 'joined hands' with public, sponsors and media about the way the English team plays its cricket and thus its 'ability' to play Australia," he writes.
"Consequently, we have currently gained 'psychological control' over England." What are these quote marks saying, exactly? Answers on a postcard, please.
The content is no better than the style. The parallel with the fifth-century warlord Sun Tzu is hopelessly strained. Tzu's nine types of ground – serious, difficult, facile, hemmed-in, desperate, etc – bear no relation to the position Australia find themselves in, which is extremely comfortable.
Buchanan accuses England of "hanging on to excuses (e.g., injuries, toss, bad luck, dropped catches, etc)". Dropped catches can be described as a number of things – a shame, a crime, a joke, a nightmare – but not as an excuse. (Injuries, on the other hand, are an excuse: quite a good one, when one side is missing five of its 12 contracted players.)
Buchanan goes on: "By gradually taking each of these away, ultimately there's no place to hide!!" How the Aussies are supposed to take away England's excuses is not explained. Is their physio going to help get Hussain and Thorpe back on the field? Is Steve Waugh planning to give Mike Atherton the toss? Are the batsmen going to edge the ball, see England drop it, and walk all the same? And as for those exclamation marks...
Like Steve Waugh, Buchanan likes to go in for kidology. Unlike Waugh, he is not very good at it. After the first day of the Lord's Test, Buchanan described the pitch as "benign", even though it clearly had pace, lift and some uneven bounce in it, as well as runs. Next day, Dominic Cork, Michael Slater and Mark Waugh all took blows on the body; later, Thorpe got such a brute of a ball from Brett Lee that he broke a bone in his top hand. If this was a benign pitch, I hate to think what a treacherous one would be like.
Buchanan has a formidable record with Queensland and Australia, if not in his year with Middlesex, but the suspicion grows that his success may have come in spite of his methods as much as because of them. The Australians are so gifted, so hungry and so well led by Waugh that the coach may be no more important than the coach-driver.
Meanwhile, the coach with a real job on his hands is Duncan Fletcher, whose team have lost nine internationals in a row, and simply cannot afford to lose another. The good news is that this Test is at Trent Bridge, the ground where Fletcher spent the finest hour of his playing career: collecting the man of the match award as he captained Zimbabwe to a David-and-Goliath victory over Australia in the 1983 World Cup.
The bad news is that the team Fletcher and his co-selectors picked last weekend is almost as unpromising as that Zimbabwe side. Craig White retains his place despite clearly being off-colour, and may even go up a place in the batting order; Robert Croft, who has never looked like winning a home Test, is preferred to Phil Tufnell, who won one against Australia last time he got the chance; Ian Ward and Usman Afzaal are retained, even though both have given every sign of being out of their depth, while the much more promising Owais Shah is left kicking his heels in the queue.
All this has been done in the name of consistency, which is a fine thing to aim for but not an over-riding factor (as England themselves showed by dumping Ian Salisbury in mid-winter). Asked why Croft had been picked, David Graveney said: "We wanted to show continuity." It is as if the selectors are determined not to do anything that smacks of desperation. But these are desperate times.
There is a great moment in Toy Story when Buzz Lightyear tells Woody, "This is no time to panic." Woody replies: "This is the perfect time to panic!" For England, this would have been a good time, if not to panic, then to try something radically different, such as accepting Russell's offer to resume his international career, and thus freeing Stewart to do what he does best and attack the new ball. If this sounds unlikely, it is only what England did in the middle of the last Ashes series (with the role of Russell being taken by Warren Hegg). And it worked. They turned 2-0 into 2-1, and what had been a drubbing became a reasonably close series. Sun Tzu, surely, would have picked Russell.
Tim de Lisle is editor of Wisden.comReuse content