John Benaud: View from Oz

Change is in the air, where it should stay
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The Independent Online

Can we avoid the most stunning of upsets? Theories abound: drop Matthew Hayden, pick as many bowlers as England do, call in the cavalry, aka specialist coaches. There's a trivia quiz in every turn of the knife: selection Draculas who yearn for a bloodbath want us to know that Hayden hasn't scored a 70 in his last 30 innings.

It's self-serving, confusing evidence that reminds us of the statistical torment heaped on Mark Taylor by his detractors a decade ago: "Taylor hasn't scored a 50 since the blue moon was in the fourth quarter", or some such twaddle.

Advice is plentiful, and "the boot" ever-present: the pithy "Dad's Army", once exclusively reserved for the announcement of any England cricket team, is suddenly popping up in headlines about Ricky Ponting's side, average age about 31. "Pension off Dad's Army from the top" was supported by a team of very talented former opening batsmen, Colin McDonald, Keith Stackpole, Geoff Marsh and Ian Redpath, either dour or dashing but all inclined to believe that Hayden, nearly 34, has had his day because when they were 32 or 33 their form was "tapering off".

The answer to two challenges will settle the make-up of Australia's Fifth Test team, and is unlikely to pay any heed to shrill demands to make sudden, substantial change. Change will be subtle, and can only happen on the team's return. But if it is delayed then, the next generation of Australian cricket will inevitably mirror the current predicament of once-great West Indian cricket. Let's think it through with the selectors.

Challenge one: what's gone wrong? Is it age, the batting, the bowling, the fielding or the captaincy? Challenge two: Glenn McGrath's elbow.

The batting: pension off Hayden and who'll open? We can promote Simon Katich or Adam Gilchrist, but neither is a Test opener, or in touch. So, that's a major risk. And it might further compromise a middle order that is struggling anyway. We can bring Mike Hussey in from the county scene, but what's the quality of the attacks he's been facing? How might a new partner impact on the successful Justin Langer? And, we'd weaken the slips cordon. Better to stay with Hayden, and hope.

Drop Damien Martyn? He's had a couple of tough decisions, and is he handling the swing bowlers any worse than the others? We could promote Brad Hodge. Gee, a Test debutant in a win-or-lose match. A gamble or a calculated risk? Maybe drop Katich? It's a tough one. Let's come back to it after we settle the bowling.

Let's play five bowlers to increase our chances of dismissing England twice. If McGrath is passed fit, do we really need five? Yes, what if McGrath breaks down? We have to pick Stuart MacGill. He has a better strike-rate than Shane Warne and is more likely to take wickets than Shaun Tait or Michael Kasprowicz. Risks: he's hardly played any cricket; Warne struggles when MacGill plays in the same team. Historical pointer: Australia have played two spinners and two quicks before (Hughes, Reiffel, May, Warne in 1993). Qualification: the Waughs were in the batting, both of whom could bowl.

Should we call in all-rounder Shane Watson for Martyn or Katich? Why not? Didn't we give Watson a Test last summer in Australia to ready him for a moment just like this? Let's back our judgement. And, he's just made 200 with the bat.

Recent selection history suggests that the odds of all that happening are about as long as the slowest fly's. After all, soon after the Fourth Test Ponting took time out from abusing England over their substitute tactic, not to recall the three words he probably uttered when Martyn's short single call invited Gary Pratt to throw down the captain's stumps, but to suggest to the selectors a team change was unlikely, McGrath excepted.

Predictable really, because even in adversity this team are seriously comfortable with themselves. Anyway, whatever men the selectors give this overly chatty Australian captain to manage, the task is simple enough: talk to his millionaire batsmen about more runs in the bank, and constantly remind his rookie fast bowlers that constant length and line - ooh, aah, Glenn McGrath - creates pressure.

Optimists in Oz maintain only a few no-balls, buttered-fingers, runs and wickets separate the teams - but they forget Andrew Flintoff. Trent Bridge acknowledged, England still can't really be sure they "know how to win".

History is on Australia's side there, unless Ponting's snap is a team-wide symptom of "mental disintegration", a syndrome previously confined to Australia's opponents.

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