View from Down Under - Freewheeling Gilchrist must be restrained
Sunday 17 July 2005
Maybe Warne anticipated that the personalities at the other end of the line were sure to have more on their minds than a bit of dressing-room scuttlebutt that Marcus Trescothick is still Glenn McGrath's bunny.
Marcus's plight is just one of a bunch of theories, some of them unfavourable to Australia, which have been circulating on cricket's grapevine and which could impact on the contest. One: Australia were afforded a less than ideal Test series build-up, almost no "long" cricket to fine-tune techniques, just a dog's breakfast of lightweight limited-overs slogathons that ensured a bottom line more bountiful than any traditional half-dozen lead-up games against counties ever could.
Fair enough. Ask an Ashes debutant puzzled by foreign pitch conditions what he would prefer, a three-day county match and a 1970s pay packet or a bit of sloggo and a 2005 pay packet and you know what the answer will be! Still, one county match does seem a little stingy to offer the latecomers like Justin Langer and, to a lesser extent, Warne's shadow Stuart MacGill, the chance to acclimatise. No doubt that singular bow-and-scrape to tradition will soon be gone, too.
These modern-day "McDonald's itineraries" make it hard to imagine how Don Bradman once scored 1,000 runs before May ended. He did it on his first tour, in 1930, too. He recorded in his diary during the traditional tour opener at Worcester: "I felt well after getting a start and my new bat was excellent."
He scored 236 and, in the fourth match against Hampshire when he reached 47, he had 1,001 runs at an average of 143, a first for any touring batsman. He wrote: "Wicket not easy, light bad, bowling good, hardest fight for runs I ever had."
Makes you wonder what Ricky Ponting wrote in his diary about the Twenty20 match et al - maybe: "Another day at the office, weather sunny, pitch flat, boundaries short, crowd huge."
Acclimatising is not the problem it used to be. Most Australians play in English county cricket and pitches are covered, neutering the match-turning impact finger-spinners like Jim Laker or Derek Underwood once had, or an accurate seamer like Derek Shackleton.
Anyway, the bulk of Australia's Ashes side have been in England all along, even if only involved in limited-overs contests. But sudden mental adjustment to the longer form of the game is no longer a problem. So, no excuses there for Australia. And any theories that Australia's build-up was sloppy have surely been discounted, so precise was their demolition of England in the last two limited-overs matches.
To win, England need to overwhelm Australia in four areas: discipline and toughness, swing bowling, fielding urgency, and batting dependability.
Good bowling will probe Australia's most obvious weakness, the top-order batting, where Langer, Matthew Hayden and Ponting all go hard at the ball. Langer can get trapped on the crease, a leg-before prospect; Hayden and Ponting plunge on to the front foot and are cordon catching possibilities.
England have a nice balance to combat that in the swing of Matthew Hoggard and the pace of Stephen Harmison, subtlety and steel. It's a bit like Ian Botham and Bob Willis, just not as good. Any early success will expose Damien Martyn, always a bit flashy around the off with his open bat-face, and Michael Clarke, keen-eyed and brilliant but sometimes too careless for his own good.
Yet, even conceding such sensational success, England will be confronted by Simon Katich, underrated and a wonderful player in a crisis, and Adam Gilchrist. How to combat Gilchrist? There used to be a theory about drying up a good player's run source which, explained simply, meant swallowing your pride and sticking a few reliable men out on the fence where an aggressive batsman hit most of his boundaries. And right from the moment he came in.
In Gilchrist's case that would mean a deep point, a deep forward square-leg and a deep mid-on, straightish. The trick England have to take is this: make Gilchrist take singles not smash fours.
Bowlers cannot win matches unless they are backed by brilliant fielding. The plethora of limited-overs matches may have improved England's; Australia's remains the poorer for the retirements of Mark Taylor and the Waughs.
England's batting looked wobbly once McGrath found his feet. The form of Jason Gillespie and Michael Kasprowicz, while fodder for amateur selectors eager to drop someone, is of no account while Brett Lee is bending minds and Warne likely to do likewise.
Warne's hogging of the early tour headlines, achieved without him even delivering a single teasing, exploding leg-spinner, merely confirms what a strange tour this Ashes one has been thus far.
Whether it remains compelling viewing will depend on more conclusive evidence of England's revival than just their recent performance against lesser Test opponents than Australia. Think of this contest like you would a horse stepping up from a selling race at Haydock to the Epsom Derby.
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