John Benaud: The wider lesson: you can't beat practice

'You can't just turn up in a Test and hope to bowl well'

Imagine if all those boffins at Nasa had tried to put a man on the moon without embracing a searching test programme. It was joyous to watch Neil Armstrong kicking up dust, but what if the lunar surface had turned out to be quicksand?

It's not rocket science to suggest that England, and cricket generally, would have benefited from a more intense, realistic build-up to the Ashes, and in particular this Gabba Test. The compressed series thereafter is not the problem.

That is not to demand a return to the grand touring days when MCC teams meandered across Australia for six weeks on the way to the First Test, but merely to wonder if England might have laboured harder in the few contests programmed.

This is, of course, inviting reflection on Harmison's Wide, which in any Ashes 2006 post- mortem will be right up there with Ricky's Ripping Ton, a strange alignment but perfectly natural because they will surely be identified as trend-setters. Just read the body language.

Wides of such moment are rare, but perspective demands a confession: we Australians have form, too. Early in his tumultuous career Jeff Thomson slung them so wide of leg slip the wicketkeeper announced: "I need roller skates for this bloke."

In Antigua in 1973, Dennis Lillee's other famous partner, Bob Massie, directed his first ball of the day, a rank full toss, towards second slip, where Keith Stackpole was less lucky than Andrew Flintoff at the Gabba. He failed to get a hand down before the ball cracked his right knee, collapsing him like a bag of spuds. In the case of Thommo it was just an unorthodox action, but Massie's radar had been scrambled by irresistible Caribbean hospitality.

Harmison's blurred vision is different, because he is potentially a match-turner. Ian Chappell stood at first slip for Massie's wobbly moment, and of Harmison he says: "You can't just turn up in a Test and hope to bowl well", a reference to the soft nature of Harmison's pre-Test work ethic. For the record, 44 years ago Ted Dexter's men had six matches against the states and combined teams to acclimatise pre-Test, to gauge the pacier and bouncier pitches, their ever-widening cracks, the length to bowl, whether to set fields finer, wider or deeper. This tour, bounce has done Andrew Strauss when hooking - twice in four innings. In 2006, no player can afford to be a slow learner.

With Australia on 588 for 9 Harmison, in his 29th over and 100-plus runs in the red, finally found a hint of rhythm. Five-and- a-bit sessions after the toss! By then, Flintoff knew the First Test was gone, and to salvage something for the Second he had best try to bowl his missile man into form. Match practice in a Test, for heaven's sake.

It was a tactical turnaround too late. Because on day one Flintoff had too hastily whipped Harmison out of the attack and brought on not himself, the pace bowler most likely to stir Justin Langer's demons against the short ball, but James Anderson, a second-rate Hoggard clone.

The reality is this: Glenn McGrath is unlikely to be cast as Captain Mainwaring any time soon; Australia made 602 but only Ponting and Michael Hussey looked truly in control; Langer was streaky and Matthew Hayden uneasy; Damien Martyn failed to score his age; and skittish Michael Clarke was too carefree again. That pair might be fighting for one batting spot if Australia eventually choose two spinners and Shane Watson.

Expect England to get better, although nothing may improve their cumbersome fielding compared with Australia's. It's so very dry Down Under it's pointless to carry both swingers, Anderson and Hoggard. Either Sajid Mahmood or Monty Panesar can come in, but two spinners makes more sense unless the captain remains obtuse about how to seduce the Australian tail, who thrive on hitting through the line.

But, if England don't improve and "the most anticipated Ashes series in history" turns out to be "no contest", then with a little bit of luck alarm bells might sound in the accountancy department at ICC-Dubai, where a steady stream of pulp cricket is compulsory scheduling. Even a bean-counter might one day twig that more and more visiting teams, and thus Test series, are being compromised by a paucity of match practice in foreign conditions, therefore threatening to demean the spectacle, entrench home-town advantage and stifle player development. Spectator apathy won't be far behind.

What's next? England offering the Australians, and anyone else, a couple of two-day tilts with the Minor Counties as Test series warm-ups? Imagine an Ashes based on that. Harmison's Wide might one day turn out to be a blessing in disguise for Test cricket, if not this England.

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