England stare into mouth of Australian cannon

The Ashes: Hosts facing prospect of humiliation in five-match series which begins today as tourists prepare to unleash barrage of talent
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The Independent Online

In America they have the term "no-brainer". It is much used in the sporting arena. Example: The Yankees will win the World Series. This is a "no-brainer" of the front rank. No subtle analysis is required, no fine measurement of various strengths. In short, no brain work is needed in reaching the verdict. The Yankees have more talent, more experience, more money, more of everything it takes in the winning of a series of matches. Amen, good night, period.

Here is a rival English no-brainer. The Aussies are going to slaughter England in the Test series which starts at Edgbaston today. A whitewash, given reasonable weather and knowing the Australian nature, is, if not a full-blown no-brainer, at least half of one. If there was any serious doubt about this, it was surely shattered by one of yesterday's headlines, which said "England turn to Afzaal to fill the breach".

Who? Usman Afzaal is a promising left-hander whose potential is said to have impressed, among others, Australia's doyen pace man Glenn McGrath. But Afzaal has never played in a Test match, he is utterly untested against the kind of concerted world-class assault that will be made on him if he indeed plays today. He was given no exposure to the edge and the steel of the Australians in the catastrophically demoralising recent NatWest triangular series and if he was to succeed in such circumstances it would be one of the most extraordinary achievements in the history of the game. Afzaal does not come into a confident, poised team but one which is ­ the no-brainer prediction has to be ­ facing the cricket equivalent of being tied, one by one, to the mouth of a cannon. By the most savage of comparisons, the Australians drop Justin Langer after a run of indifferent form. His Test batting average is a fraction away from 40 ­ the benchmark of a successful career at the highest level. Langer gives way to Damien Martyn, who has been around international cricket for most of his adult life.

Afzaal, for the moment at least, is a member of a vast and constantly shifting cast of England "walk-ons". They walk on and they walk off, shell-shocked and generally lost forever. Lathwell, Maynard, Tudor, Shah, now Afzaal, and scores in between, flit about like ghosts on the edge of the action. Ten years ago, the Aussie veteran batsman David Boon contemplated the selection policies of England with disbelief. "Jeez," he said, "it's a cast of thousands." But how many grow into their roles?

Mike Atherton, Graham Thorpe and today's captain Nasser Hussain did, and of the bowlers so did Darren Gough and Andrew Caddick. But that, when you look at the Australians, does not make a quorum, a fact made devastatingly plain with the injury problems of Thorpe. For the Australians, losing one of the Waughs or the luminous Ricky Ponting or the dramatic Adam Gilchrist or any one of the bowling stars, would be an inconvenience. When England lose such a figure as Thorpe it is like the removal of a pillar. You have to worry that the house will fall down.

The Australian captain Steve Waugh could scarcely have been more candid about the fact that he used the triangular series as a useful device of psychological warfare. England offered a one-day team only loosely related to the one which would attempt to win back the Ashes, and it was a problem compounded by the absence through injury of the hard-driving captain Hussain. But Gough and Caddick were caught in the fire, along with the hero of the Second Test against Pakistan, the now injured Michael Vaughan. Alec Stewart aged before our eyes. This week, almost unbelievably, the debate about whether he should shed the wicketkeeper's gloves was again revived.

The most charitable Australian view of England's plight came, a bit remarkably, from the captain's brother Mark. "Maybe England have too many players to choose from at a certain age, and they get a bit spoiled for choice," he said after helping to mop up the one-day series at Lord's. "With less numbers involved in Australia, maybe we get a better chance to assess the real prospects. Even so, it's probably time England made a few hard decisions about who they fancy the real players are ­ and then really back them."

In the Ashes week that the name of Afzaal was pulled from the hat, that more than ever sounds like a no-brainer.