John Benaud View from Oz: The Oval - the end or a new beginning?

Click to follow
The Independent Online

It was the Oval Test, 1972. Ian Chappell's young Australians were trailing Ray Illingworth's bold but old side 1-2. In the last innings of the match Australia, needing 242 to win, looked done at 171 for 5. They won at 2.49pm on the last day.

The heroes were a slightly tubby wicketkeeper whom the critics had nicknamed "Iron Gloves" - Rod Marsh - and a tall, elegant, under-performing right-hand batsman - Paul Sheahan. It was character-building stuff. Anyone who saw the winning moment will never forget the pair running from The Oval, ecstatic, Marsh swirling his bat like an aeroplane propeller.

Bear in mind England had not lost the Ashes, yet this is how the great England fast bowler John Snow recalled the moment, in his autobiography Cricket Rebel: "The England dressing-room was a very sober place as we packed to go our separate ways while listening to the sounds of the Australian champagne celebrations in their dressing room almost directly overhead. Not only because we had failed to win the series.

"Throughout that summer we all felt that we were taking part in a long-drawn-out farewell party. The time was drawing nearer when the old firm under Ray Illingworth was having to break up. Some of the older hands were getting towards the end of their Test careers and we realised it would probably be the last summer that the 1970-71 Ashes-winning side would be good enough at Test level. The time was coming when new parts would have to be fitted."

Chappell's Australians were soon the very best, and Snow was right about England. It's too early to know how this Oval Test may change the future fortunes of England and Australia, but it's fair to think England are on the way up and the ageing Australians have been below their best, possibly on the slide. Wouldn't it be nice to be around in 30 years' time to know for sure!

How, for instance, will it impact on the next Ashes Down Under, which is just around the corner? England are enjoying a new hero, Andrew Flintoff, but paint your face in green and gold sun cream and just imagine life without Shane Warne. How much longer can his genius prosper? Who but Warne would be cheeky enough to risk a few rubbishy, blancmange wrong 'uns, like he did to Andrew Strauss, just to seek a tad more psychological edge over a batsman he slightingly calls "Daryll", after one-time bunny Daryll Cullinan.

When Warne started rubbing his bowling shoulder midway through his first-day marathon we feared an encore from that old injury, but it was the old maestro merely offering another serving of faint hope to England's befuddled batsmen.

Aussies pray he will match the great Clarrie Grimmett, who reached 44 before a selector observed: "I think the old man's finished, isn't he?" Catastrophic injury aside, Warne, who will be 36 on Tuesday, should be good for at least four more years. That could be extended if Australia can unearth a balance spinner and a pressure pace attack to lessen his workload.

But, what if it's goodbye Glenn McGrath? Can Brett Lee and Shaun Tait mature into the new "Lillee and Thommo", as wishful thinkers hope? Some perspective is always useful when comparing talent from different eras. Lee's pace can intimidate - as Flintoff might acknowledge happened early in his hesitant 72. But Lee is too easily distracted from length and line ever to be a Dennis Lillee, and Tait can never be as life-threatening to a batsman as Jeff Thomson, who could break a foot with a sandshoe crusher, threaten throats or crack a skull with a bumper.

This is technical, but Thommo's strange, sliding crossover foot action just before the crease kept him more upright at delivery than Tait, thus allowing him to propel the ball at greater pace and to extract frightening bounce from a good length.

England's challenge might be more mental than manpower. Under pressure, too many sessions that looked won - the first in this Test - were suddenly squandered. And, contrast these pivotal Oval moments: Warne catches Flintoff low to his right, Marcus Trescothick misses Justin Langer high to his right. Manpower problems might be the underperforming middle order of Ian Bell and Kevin Pietersen, sometimes exposed by the captain Michael Vaughan's carelessness, and the ongoing fitness doubts of match-turner Simon Jones.

England face trying times in Pakistan and India, Australia can renovate at home against West Indies and South Africa. But all the time, this Oval Test and what might have been will be in the backs of minds.