Awesome and scary Australia immune to Headingley effect

'It was a pleasure to watch Australia, surely the finest team ever to play five-day ? or in their case four-day ? cricket'
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My thanks to the England and Wales Cricket Board, generous hosts at Lord's on Saturday, but really there was no need for England's cricketers to follow suit, offering succour to Australia's batsmen by spilling catches and misfielding as if coached by Fred Karno.

Arguably, the second Test was surrendered during that morning session on the third day, when the only thing catching in the England ranks was a chronic dose of butterfingers. Butcher lived up to his name with a ham-fisted effort off Gilchrist, Ward missed another, even Temporary Captain Redoubtable, Michael Atherton, fumbled a straightforward chance in the slips. All of which was deeply disappointing. We know that England are mightily outclassed by Australia in the batting and bowling departments, so that leaves only fielding as an opportunity for the two teams to compete on a vaguely level playing field. On Saturday morning, alas, England looked as though they were competing on a playing field with a 45 degree slope.

Still, it was a pleasure to watch Australia, surely the finest team ever to play five-day – or in their case four-day – cricket. And it was a pleasure to attend the Saturday of an Ashes Test at Lord's, one of the world's great sporting occasions rendered even more meaningful by the date ... 21 July, 2001, 20 years to the jolly old day since Bob Willis capitalised on Ian Botham's thunderous 149 not out the afternoon before by taking eight Aussie wickets for 43 and turning "Headingley '81" into a rallying cry that has echoed – albeit too loudly and too often than is perhaps healthy for English cricket – through the ages.

Sitting next to me at the swanky ECB lunch was Nick Hancock, the host of They Think It's All Over (and I wish it was, although it would have been rude to say so). He told me he was there in 1981. Lucky chap, I said. Yes, but what nobody ever mentions, he said, is that it was a pretty feeble Australian side ... Kim Hughes an unexceptional captain, Allan Border and Geoff Lawson nowhere near as effective as they later became, Dennis Lillee past his prime, and Trevor Chappell not remotely in the same league as his two brothers.

Hancock – a warm and engaging fellow much more likeable off screen than on, incidentally – may well be right, although it still wouldn't do to underestimate England's achievement in winning a Test match after following on, only the second team in history to pull off such a thing.

Of course, making comparisons across the decades is an invidious business, which is why it is a waste of breath to debate whether the 2001 Australians are better than their 1948 forebears. On the other hand, such comparisons are irresistible. And here's a spooky thing. At Headingley in 1981 the Australian first innings total was 401, precisely as it was on Saturday.

Moreover, Australia reached that total 20 years ago thanks largely to poor English fielding. "Australia just plodded along, against much ordinary bowling, helped by a further blackening of England's catching record," wrote John Woodcock in The Times.

Plus ça change, to quote that Frenchman, Benaud... except that these days Australia do not just plod along, and England do not have a Botham, captained by a Brearley. Nevertheless, in the Edrich Stand on Saturday I overheard one optimistic soul wondering whether, with England three wickets down in their second innings, and still trailing Australia by 200-odd, the odds against a home victory might be ludicrous enough for a hopeful punt, à la Rod Marsh and Dennis Lillee. Could history repeat itself? Could it 'eckerslike, as they say in the Headingley area.

The truly awesome and faintly scary thing about Australia is that, like other great teams of yore – Liverpool FC, the West Indies, the All Blacks – they seem able to replace great players with better ones. Kevin Keegan left Liverpool and in stepped Kenny Dalglish. Ditto Ian Healy and Adam Gilchrist, the difference being that Australia didn't need to shell out a transfer fee.

Last Wednesday, by the way, Healy was one of the entertaining speakers at the Lord's Taverners eve-of-Test dinner at the London Hilton, his brief to toast the spirit of cricket. The official preamble to the Laws of Cricket asserts that "it is against the spirit of the game... to dispute an umpire's decision... to direct abusive language towards an opponent... to appeal knowing that the batsman is not out ... to seek to distract an opponent by harassment with persistent clapping or unnecessary noise under the guise of enthusiasm and motivation of one's own side".

For the pugnacious Healy to toast these sentiments was like Oliver Reed toasting temperance, or Bernard Manning toasting racial harmony, and to his credit he chirpily acknowledged the irony before chirpily predicting that Australia would win comfortably at Lord's. A thousand guests murmured dissent, more fools they.