England in need of Australian leadership

The problem is not just that the Aussies bat and bowl and field in an altogether superior way, but that they look like men about men's business
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The Independent Online

Now that the Ashes series has become as nightmarish as anyone could have feared, it is time to consider the last two options facing English cricket. We could sue for peace. Or we could appoint an Aussie as Test supremo.

Now that the Ashes series has become as nightmarish as anyone could have feared, it is time to consider the last two options facing English cricket. We could sue for peace. Or we could appoint an Aussie as Test supremo.

Both choices involve vast humiliation, of course, but then what could be worse than the parodies of competition witnessed at Edgbaston and Lord's? The problem is not just that the Aussies bat and bowl and field in an altogether superior way, but that they look like men about men's business. Too often England look like ill-adjusted boys. Darren Gough, otherwise known as The Dazzler, was a supremely sad example of this on the Saturday of Lord's.

He had wretched luck, no doubt, when Mark Butcher (twice), Ian Ward and, of all people, Mike Atherton put down catches off his bowling, but his reaction would hardly have passed muster at the birthday party of a Hollywood brat. He flounced and fumed, seemingly intent not on healing cracks in the dissolving surface of his team but putting as much distance between himself and the other wretches as was possible this side of storming off the field. Less than a week earlier, Gough had put himself forward as England's captain. As you were forced to say after the first day of the series at Edgbaston, the inclination was to weep for England.

Weep for its soft centre. Its lack of coherent selection policy. Its revolving cast of defeat-deadened spirits. The appointment of an Australian manager-coach, with full responsibility for preparation of the team and selection would not automatically remedy these problems but it would be a mighty start. It would imply most forcefully it was time to dismantle the inadequate culture of English cricket.

Duncan Fletcher, England's Zimbabwean coach, has no doubt attempted to prop up the English failings, but he did come to the job from within the domestic game. He was only a newish broom. Someone like Allan Border or Ian Healy, who for so long tormented England as a sledger from hell behind the stumps and the most obdurate guardian of Australia's short tail, would bring a single cleaning utensil – a hose-pipe, to wash down the walls of a dressing-room mired in futility.

Healy springs to mind because shortly before the latest surrender of England he gave a BBC radio audience a brief but telling account of Australian sporting attitudes. He said that there was no way England should have been thinking of defeat last Sunday morning. They should have been talking themselves into a wicket-by-wicket, ball-by-ball rearguard action of fierce resolve. Did this mean, asked his interrogator with a tremor of hope, that England had a chance of escape? "Oh no, mate," said Healy, "I expect the Aussies to win around lunchtime."

You cannot make a team of the quality of Steve Waugh's with a brief burst of sound psychology and aggressive instinct. It is something that grows out of a successful tradition, one which in the most recent epoch of Australian dominance was initiated by the appointment of Bobby Simpson as coach, a great professional who worked closely with Border. Step by step, Australia regained their status in the game, and the challenge for today's captain, Waugh, is not so much to remake values but maintain and develop those he inherited. He has a maintenance contract with the sporting gods.

At some point England have to start that process, and for it be done with the necessary toughness you have to believe the force must come from outside, and, if this indeed is so, where better to look than Australia? When the Football Association outraged traditionalists and appointed Sven Goran Eriksson to reanimate the England team, they were saying that for one reason or another there was no one equipped in the domestic game to tackle the job. Whether they were right or not, it was a decision of some nerve, and it reflected the fact that the English team had revealed itself to be bankrupt on the international stage. English cricket has surely pitched into a similar crisis.

Interestingly, Britain's new national swimming performance director, Bill Sweetenham, was yesterday offering his antidote to the nation's pathetic showing in the Olympic pool in Sydney last year. "Look," said Sweetenham, "I'm telling them there'll be no funerals, no weddings, forget your Aunt Patty's birthday, school outings, the lot. Christmas Day and New Year's Day are the only two days you're getting off until the next Olympics. That's tough, but I want their hearts singing as they do it. No-one got anywhere by being soft." Bill Sweetenham, as if you hadn't guessed, is an Australian.

Border and Healy might react to an English invitation rather as Waugh did on Sunday when he was asked about England's chances of setting his team a "tricky" target at Lord's. "Is that a serious question?" the Australian captain responded. But they should still be asked. What have we got to lose except a soppily half-baked approach to competing with the best team in the world?

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