Pace and swing widen hairline cracks in the 'New Invincibles'

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The Independent Online

In seeking to explain some of the influential trends in the three Ashes Tests to date, perhaps we could consider hair-styles. England seem to have the momen-tum in that department, too. Those reverse swingers Flintoff and Jones S are perfectly groomed to reflect their razor-sharp talent, opting for the close-cropped coif that shouts "bovver boys". Alas, poor Jason Gillespie is the symbol of Australia's bad hair days.

It's faintly possible Big J is auditioning for Mel Gibson's next Biblical blockbuster, but more likely he is labouring under the old Samson theory - the longer the hair, the greater the bowling strength. Perhaps he should discuss reverse psychology with coach John Buchanan - a haircut might do the trick.

This smacks of trivia in the most serious of cricket contests, but surfaces easily because from this distance, staying in touch means staying glued to the TV until 3am to digest every ball of the most informative, innovative Channel 4 coverage. And Down Under, our feed is spliced with advertisements, the most irritating of which features Shane Warne discussing with Graham Gooch a thinning hairline and how to beat it. Warne offers that his blond mop is now "as lush as an English greentop".

Who needs a greentop when England's heady bowlers have shown that reverse swing, the by-product of a ball roughened on a baldy browntop, is the clear difference between two teams still trying to establish who have the creakiest batting and the most negligent fielding?

Some say England are on top, but their charge on the last day at Old Trafford was compromised by too many missed catching and run-out opportunities and Ashley Giles's barren return. A wiser judgement might be to suggest there's not a hair's breadth in it, so to speak.

These are frustrating days for Australian fans puzzled by never-dreamt-of form lapses among winners who just a few Tests ago were being lauded as the "New Invincibles", a throwback to Bradman's 1948 warriors. It's unsettling that comparisons always lead to Bradman, never to other champion combinations like Richie Benaud's, Ian Chappell's or Steve Waugh's, which would be more realistic.

Why are these Invincibles not? Is it the age factor? It's true the ball does get on quicker as the years advance, and that might explain the 33-year-old Adam Gilchrist's fumbles, one of which hit him in the wrist, no less. Maybe it was just that Old Trafford is a bad sighting ground. But, how ironic that his gloves should be clanking as loudly as the much maligned Geraint Jones's.

Another Jones, Dean, now part of the Down Under television comments team, where he sports a cool, trim silver-grey thatch, was quick to call Geraint "Cymbals". That's an imaginative put-down but it ignores a couple of Geraint stunners, one that clinched the win at Edgbaston, the other the freakish effort that gave hope at Old Trafford.

Age and shuffling footwork are often great mates. The Australian batsmen have failed to adjust to the spice and flair of England's pace quartet. Pace is the key word. In the past 10 series Australia have played West Indies, Bangladesh, Zimbabwe, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka and New Zealand. Any reverse swingers at pace in that lot? One, but the reluctant Shoaib Akhtar is but a blip on the international scene these days. Asked about the reverse swing factor, Australia's somewhat beleaguered captain, Ricky Ponting, said: "The England bowlers have got it going big time and early on - from overs 10 to 30, when we have lost our wickets - and they have three guys doing it at 90mph."

A victim is Matthew Hayden. When Flintoff bowled him around his legs in the second innings at Old Trafford, what had gone before, a stiff examination of his footwork around off, revived memories of Hayden early in his Test career, when he struggled against bounce, pace and movement. Who doesn't? But the second half of the question is: was that just inexperience or a footwork flaw that has lain dormant until now?

Trent Bridge promises wonderful moments for the game of cricket and a nervous moment for an ageing Australian outfit who, nevertheless, only have to win to cling on to the Ashes. Their administrators and management should not be blameless either, having lumbered them with a damp-squib lead-up to a five-day marathon. Could Australia really gamble on two Test debutants, Shaun Tait and Brad Hodge? Only Michael Clarke's bad back or Simon Katich's form could ruffle that thinking. England have a winning tactic in reverse swing expertise. The pitch and outfield will be the key. Shave both?

The hair will rate, too. Kevin's hair. Pietersen appropriately chose blue to drop his fifth catch at Old Trafford. If he drops more at Trent Bridge, just plain, simple black might capture the moment.

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