Sun goes down on Buchanan's empire

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The Independent Online

Australia may still retain the Ashes, but make no mistake, they do not deserve to do so. They have been outflanked in batting, bowling, fielding and, would you believe it, propaganda. There is a predilection for them to become sanctimonious in the latter regard, a temptation they would be wise to avoid considering their own previous.

The obvious fall-guy, or at least the first one, is their coach, John Buchanan. He has been in the job for seven years, and he deserves at least some of the credit for the side's pre-eminence. He has kept them wanting more, which is a fair achievement, since so many of these fellows must have been sated so long ago.

It has been Buchanan's barely concealed mission to make his charges better people as well as better cricketers, hence the notes under the hotel-room doors, the constant talk about the group and the culture, the request to learn a new word a day. For a cricket coach to apprise his charges of matters beyond the boundary rope is admirable.

What does he know of cricket who only cricket knows and all that. Too many clubs and teams disregard, nay deny, their responsibilities outside the sphere of sporting ability, which partly explains the wretched state of professional football.

But it is possible that Buchanan and Australia have taken it too far. Knowing the meaning of, say, querulous, does not help to preclude the bowling of no-balls, though it would presumably help a bowler to describe to the captain the state to which he has been reduced by repeated transgressions.

Australia bowled 22 no-balls in England's first innings at Trent Bridge and have sent down 85 in the series so far. This is unacceptable for professional bowlers, as Buch-anan has conceded. He has promoted a policy of self-regulation, which means that bowlers look after themselves in the nets.

This practice has been accompanied by a purported regime of zero tolerance, all of which is proving about as effective as allowing heroin addicts responsibility to wean themselves off the habit. But he made his own mistake by his public declaration. England have actually bowled more no-balls in the series, equally unacceptable, but they have not made a big deal of it. That is a little, perhaps inconsequential, victory in itself, but a little victory none the less.

Australia's ground-fielding has also been pretty ropey, their batting has never fired as a unit. Not once. Buchanan has remained a benign, almost avuncular presence, prepared if not exactly happy to field the questions of an ever more voracious Aussie press seeking not only answers but someone to blame.

One of his favourite sayings is that he is accountable, not responsible. Buchanan had told a few people that this was likely to be his final campaign as the Australian coach and that he had something else in mind - possibly a job at an English county. If he was having any bouts of indecision, his employers may well help him to make up his mind in about three weeks' time.

It would be hopelessly misguided to suggest that Australia, the world champions, are not practising properly. But maybe they are not practising in the ways that they should. The bowlers have certainly been exposed by stepping over the line, and therefore so have the fielders. None of it has been helped by the batsmen's inability to make a decent total, but it is patent that the clarity of England's plans has been greater. Maybe they had to be.

In a disarmingly candid, optimistic yet downbeat chat with reporters on Friday night, Adam Gilchrist, the Australian vice-captain, readily conceded that it all had a filter-down effect. He made no blustering attempt to hide the fact that the momentum was with England.

"The belief is certainly there," he said. There was then a pause, as if he was wondering whether he believed in the belief. "We certainly didn't underestimate England but they have continued to show the world, not just us, what a good cricket team they are. With that in mind we're realising that this is the ultimate challenge, and we believe we can do what it takes."

Interpretation of such comments - and these were extremely studied - can always be subjective, but at no point did this great cricketer sound as though he was sure he believed. "We're not bad cricketers. We will hold that close, and I guess rely on that." But he did not seek to hide plain truth, a truth that he and his colleagues did not really expect. "England are doing to us what we have been doing to other teams for a number of years."

All empires crumble, and sporting ones are no different from others. If Australia get out of this they are merely delaying the inevitable, undone by the combination which usually does for empires: age, decay, boredom, hubris, the idea that there are no worlds left to conquer.

The absence of Glenn McGrath has been a hindrance. But they might have foreseen that in a man who is 35. Bits of the bowling body start to drop off. Tripping on a stray ball, which ruled him out of the Edgbaston Test, might have been a pure accident, but the elbow injury which prevented his playing in Nottingham was wear and tear. In any case, might a younger man have neatly stepped over the ball in Birmingham? Just kidding, but it is possible to kid.

Matthew Hoggard was castigated for innocently (so he thought) posing the question about whether an Australian attack which had bowled so many overs could withstand a concentrated five-Test series. Given what has happened to McGrath and Jason Gillespie, he begins to look like a seer from the Yorkshire dales.

It will never be the same again for Australia. England have made certain of that.