Little Englanders bowling wide of the stumps in Ashes debate

The cricket season may have got off to a cold, soggy start, and the first Test between England and Australia may still be 93 days away, but the battle for the Ashes is already hotting up.

Contests between sporting rivals bring out both the best and the worst in individuals. In 1981 Ian Botham became an iconic figure on the back of his heroics. And in the last decade Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath, two of the greatest bowlers cricket has seen, have saved many of their finest displays for the Ashes.

Yet there is an unsavoury side to this eagerly awaited contest, and it tends to take place off the field. The phoney war has begun. Jeff Thomson, the outspoken former Australian fast bowler, has compared Matthew Hoggard to a "net bowler" and labelled Michael Vaughan's side as an "embarrassment". Darren Gough has never minced his words, and the former England Test bowler accused Thomson of being "disrespectful and unintelligent".

Though unnecessary, and slightly unpleasant, this is only harmless tittle-tattle, and the pair will probably have a laugh over a pint of lager when they meet in the summer.

A more disconcerting attitude, though, is the xenophobic one that has been expressed in a couple of national newspapers during the last week. Both the Daily Mail and the Sunday Telegraph have criticised English counties for employing Australians as overseas players. This, they believe, has given members of Ricky Ponting's squad the chance to gain vital experience in English conditions. And apparently it will come back to haunt England when the Ashes start on 21 July.

What utter claptrap. Australia are not favourites to beat England this summer because 12 of their 16-man squad have played county cricket. Ricky Ponting's side are expected to retain the Ashes because they have a team containing better cricketers.

The British Isles is not the only destination visited by the Australian cricket team. Since England last travelled Down Under in the winter of 2002-03 Australia have toured New Zealand, India, Sri Lanka and the West Indies, countries where they arrived with little experience. Yet on these trips they won 10 and lost two of 14 Test matches.

It is also wrong to infer that the overseas players are the ones to benefit from the experience. Cricketers from all around the world apparently use English domestic cricket as a finishing school. If this is the case, then why don't the 350 English-qualified cricketers make as much of it as those from Australia, South Africa, India and Pakistan.

At the start of my career I learnt a great deal from Wayne Daniel and Desmond Haynes, Middlesex's overseas players. The West Indians did not offer me a huge amount of technical advice but their attitude and their professionalism had a very positive influence on my cricket.

It is also doubtful that Andrew Strauss would have made such an impressive start to his England career without Justin Langer. No one works harder for Middlesex than Langer and it is hard to imagine the Aussies slagging him off should Strauss help England win the Ashes.

It is true that this sort of arrangement is rarely reciprocated by Australian state sides and one-eyed Aussies would state that this is because "none of you poms are good enough, mate." But that is their choice. Our domestic game has become richer and far more entertaining because of their involvement.

Shane Warne will play for Hampshire at Hove on Wednesday and isn't it wonderful that cricket lovers here can turn up and watch the greatest spin bowler cricket has seen for £10?

Despite the attitude of Australian state sides opportunities exist for English players. Each winter dozens visit Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, where they play grade cricket. The deals may not be as lucrative but it is there if you want it.

Alec Stewart, the former England batsman-wicketkeeper, felt his time in Perth moulded him. And he is not alone. Strauss, Ian Bell and Paul Collingwood, three who hope to turn over the Aussies this summer, have returned from winters Down Under in better shape than when they left.

Since Australia won the Ashes in 1989 English cricket - central contracts, four-day domestic cricket, Academy, pyramid system supporting the Test side - has attempted to copy their structure. If anything it should be the Australians who are becoming paranoid, not us.

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