England reap rewards of fidelity

Derek Pringle considers the change in approach that brought about a home triumph in the first Test against Australia
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The Independent Online
One of the inevitable reactions yesterday, following England's storming win over Australia in the first Cornhill Test, will be: Where on earth did such a powerful, sustained performance come from? Quantum leaps may occur in sci-fi adventures but they are not meant to happen in cricket, at least not English cricket, which is supposed to be inefficient, uncompetitive and a breeding ground for underachievers.

On the face of it, it is not an easy question to answer. English cricket is undoubtedly all of the above things and yet, among the mess, a national team has triumphed against the best, if not currently the freshest, Test side in the world. Even so, people who have watched England over the years, not least the Australian players themselves, are probably still rubbing their eyes in disbelief.

There is no doubt that the potency and passion of England's performance surprised them. Mark Waugh, presently more famous for his critical remarks about the state of our game than his run-scoring, was genuinely impressed. Apart from England combining as a team, he reckoned Nasser Hussain's 207 was probably the best Test innings he has ever seen.

"It was never that flat out there," Waugh said, talking of the Edgbaston pitch. "Having played with him at Essex all those years, I just didn't realise he was as good as that." He also felt, along with many others, that Darren Gough bowled his socks off. "I reckon he's picked up a yard in pace," added Waugh, who twice succumbed to what Gough described as his "jaffas."

In the past, one of England's biggest problems has been the lack of a consistent strike bowler. Dominic Cork came close, but his potency relied on swing, which is fickle. Devon Malcolm could destroy teams with his raw pace - as he once did to South Africa - but he sprayed more often than he reaped.

It is not a mantle that has hung naturally from anyone's shoulders but, since Cork's injuries, it has fitted Gough more naturally than most. In cricket, it is often inappropriate to single someone out, but there can be no doubt that Gough has been a powerful factor in England's recent success. Gough has always bowled wicket-taking balls, it is just that he does it more frequently now.

It is a transformation has come about naturally, though being left out of England's plans for last summer caused the fast bowler to question his approach and forced him to ally consistency to his exuberant ability. He also taps into hidden reserves when he plays the Aussies, and his 6 for 146 at Edgbaston was, despite appearances, probably his finest performance at Test level.

He hits the seam more often too, which happens when your rhythm and confidence are restored, and there is little doubt that he has been the pick of England's bowlers since the drawn Test in Auckland. As his team-mate Hussain revealed, when asked about Gough's performance: "It's wonderful to know he can come on at any stage and get you a wicket or two."

The back-up of Caddick, Malcolm and Ealham, was important and gelled well. They must be used, too, for Gough must not be overused. Indeed he is nursing a sore shin at the moment, a niggle, which if not new, would certainly benefit from rest, and he is unlikely to play for Yorkshire when they play Surrey in the Championship on Thursday.

But, if many see Gough as a turning point, the England captain puts the success down to gradual improvements made over the winter. Taken by something that Allan Border once said, that "Australia compete by outfielding their opponents and playing with more passion and aggression," Atherton has made his troops work hard, stressing the importance of close catching. The results have been impressive and you have to have a long memory to recall when England last shelled anything remotely catchable.

More important, however, is that Atherton is in charge of the kind of young, athletic side he envisaged captaining when he returned from the West Indies three years ago. Unfortunately Raymond Illingworth then stepped in to take charge, which led to a period where changing personnel meant the side were in an almost permanent state of flux - a situation Alec Stewart yesterday confirmed when he said: "In the past we used to turn up and introduce ourselves to each other."

Under the new selectors, however, continuity is a promise which, with nine out of 12 selected for Edgbaston having been on tour in New Zealand, is one that has clearly been kept.

"Players are more relaxed when they know they are going to part of the set-up and understand each other's role," said England's coach, David Lloyd, as he waited for the least afflicted from last night's celebrations to fall into breakfast.

But, if the England coach would have been justified in resurrecting his "We flippin' murdered 'em," soundbite from Bulawayo, he instead gave credit to the selectors as well as Lord MacLaurin and the English Cricket Board.

"When I took charge as coach, England had just come back from South Africa, and a poor World Cup. They were low and disjointed and needed stability. They also needed someone to believe in them and give them confidence by sending the right messages from above. The whole structure does that now, and they have people around them that give them a chance to express themselves."

But even though Australia looked at their most vulnerable in a decade, Lloyd, like his captain, was not going to get carried away.

"We will enjoy our success, he said, "but don't intend to gloat. You've got to remember that this is one match in six and that there will be sticky times to come."

Asked if he knew how England could improve further, he said: "You improve by stretching your ambition." It is an effort England are clearly making - and one which Ladbrokes have already responded to by making them 4-6 favourites to win the Ashes.

Opening salvoes

How England's form in the first Test has indicated the

outcome of the series over the last 20 years

Against all sides

Won first Test and won series - 13

Won first Test and lost series - 1

Won first Test and drew series - 1

Lost first Test and lost series- 16

Lost first Test and won series - 2

Lost first Test and drew series - 3

Against Australia

Won first Test and won series - 3

Won first Test and lost series - 0

Won first Test and drew series - 0

Lost first Test and lost series - 5

Lost first Test and won series - 1

Lost first Test and drew series - 0

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