Buchanan resorts to mind games

Coach deflects attention from troubled tourists by probing home weakness
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The Independent Online

They will tell you that they have not contemplated losing the Ashes but do not suppose that unthinkable thought has not crossed their minds this past unforgiving month. Their cerebral coach, John Buchanan, opined yesterday on their current state on the eve of the second NatWest Challenge match to be played today at Lord's.

He and Australia could do without these games, tagged on for the benefit of everybody's bank balance at the end of the triangular tournament. But they give the tourists a chance to shake off whatever it is that is affecting them.

That is the point. Neither Buchanan nor anybody else Australian can pinpoint what the malaise is or where it has come from. He could not deny it, but he was wary of giving England too much credit.

"We are not executing our skills as well as we would like," he said. "Therefore that gives us less opportunity to exploit what I think are a number of weaknesses in the England outfit. It's why England are going along quite merrily."

This seemed to be a classic example of psychological speak, of which Buchanan is a keen student. He was admitting that his team were not doing well while rubbishing the opposition. He was not about to concede that part of the reason his side were playing badly was because England were imposing their authority.

Buchanan might have been reading from a script. He knew what he wanted to say. This is the coach who is not afraid to put notes under his players' hotel room doors urging them to achieve their destiny and fulfil their potential, quoting the great thinkers and philosophers through the ages. Buchanan is not one to agree with the general rule about professional sportsmen, for whom instinct counts for so much, that Confucius, he confuses.

More than once, Buchanan insisted that his team would turn it round. This in itself betrays their concern. It is not yet as if they have lost much: a Twenty20 match, once in the NatWest Series and once in the Challenge with a win and a tie in between. Maybe the Twenty20 started it.

One of the alleged weaknesses that Buchanan perceives is in England's opening pair of Marcus Trescothick and Andrew Strauss. He refused to retreat on that one despite their form at Headingley last week when they began assertively and Trescothick scored a hundred,

"If you look closely at what happened there, in the first 10 overs there were 16 play-and-misses and then you have to include one chance and a catch off a no ball. I would say the whole batting order has weaknesses and I see a whole range, and I'm sure England would say the same about us. But in the last four or five games our top order has out-performed them."

Buchanan was doing what coaches have to do by trying to support his men in public but that kind of assertion could invoke a charge that is often brought against neutral sports reporters by one-eyed fans, that their version of events made it seem as though they were at a different game.

Only once did he concede that this England might have something. "You can see they're confident from the way they carry themselves on the field. Winning is very infectious and the fact that we're not playing well gives them a very good head of steam at this stage. It's our job to stop that momentum and turn it round and I'm very confident we can do that. I've not seen anything to suggest otherwise apart from the fact that we're not developing what we would like to do."

Perhaps Buchanan could be protesting too much about the virtues of his own team, except that everything they did before they arrived in England pointed to hegemony. It is one thing to say that so far the sides have played only one-day cricket (and what does that matter?) but Australia have been quite as pre-eminent in that form of the game. For those of optimistic bent, it is one-day cricket in which England have been so damnably inconsistent, Test cricket in which they have charged up the rankings to number two.

"We could choose to make it a problem," said Buchanan, "but I think the calibre of this side will choose to make it a challenge." Confucius himself could not have put it better.

He has to try to win the NatWest Challenge, of course, but the Ashes are exercising everybody now. England announce their squad for the First Test on Thursday, a full week before it starts. So much for the tradition of Sunday mornings.

The big story, the only story, is whether the selectors opt for Kevin Pietersen and, if so, whom he replaces. Graham Thorpe was under some pressure because he has been out of form and there is a feeling that he might just be going down the other side of the mountain. But he may have given the selectors a get-out clause after he revealed that his back is giving him cause for concern. He took a break during the Twenty20 merry-go-round and had a series of pain-killing injections.

His 73 for Surrey on Friday may have tilted things his experienced way. Ian Bell (Test average 297, last score 162no) could be omitted. The selectors have to decide if Pietersen gives them something that nobody else does and whether that is essential to the cause.

The answer to the first is yes and it would be a brave man who said no to the second. But once selected there can be no changing horses in this particular stream. Maybe Australia would prefer to play against Bell, but doing what they prefer does not make it wrong.

Buchanan said: "I have told a few of the players that when we come out of it we will be a hell of a lot better for it. We may come out of it tomorrow, we may not, but I know we're heading in the right direction and we will have achieved that before the end of the summer." That was not philosophy, however. That was Buchanan's Prayer.