England rotten to the core

The Ashes fiasco: Atherton's motivational powers open to question as th e tourists' game is condemned as impoverished
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Like plunging your hand into a barrel full of bad Granny Smiths, the deeper you delve into England's predicament the more rotten it becomes. But is it merely a matter of rooting out a few bad apples, or is the whole structure of English cricket i s rotten? If Richie Benaud's recent comments are anything to go by (and he is far from alone among Australians), the problem is the latter, and has been for some time.

In a tribute to Peter May, Benaud claimed that the Surrey and England batsman, who died last week, was the only "great" player England had produced since the Second World War. He may be wrong, for others such as Hutton, Trueman and Laker spring to mind, but for a former Test captain who has watched the game and commentated on it for more than 30 years to make such a statement is damning.

The puzzling thing is that last summer England looked superior to the South African side that gave Australia such a decent run for their money recently, outplaying them in two of the three Tests and comfortably winning the one-dayers. None of the pluck or spirit of the team that thrillingly won the Oval Test has been on show here, save for Darren Gough's unstinting efforts which have stood out as a single red poppy in a field of flattened wheat.

The affliction that England seem to suffer whenever they play Australia is as mysterious as Shane Warne's "zooter". But it is plain from every time they meet that England seem to save their abysmal worst for those who will gloat most. This time it has gone too far. No longer content with pouring scorn and mouthing their usual anti-Pom shibboleths, the Aussies have begun to feel sorry for us, and when that happens something is drastically wrong.

It has even been suggested that an England victory might be good for cricket. "Nonsense," retorted one columnist, who believed that a triumph for incompetence serves nobody. He is right. In any case, that was written before the final day's debacle, when the press conference and post-mortems lasted five minutes longer than the 56 it took England to lose their last six wickets for a pathetic 13 runs. Antipodeans have long suspected the Poms of being all talk and no action, though it is difficult to know what Atherton might have done or said to stave off such a comprehensive defeat.

On the evidence so far, England have as much hope of matching Australia's firepower with the ball as their batsman do of playing it. Shane Warne may be a freak, but Craig McDermott, good bowler that he is, cannot be mentioned in the same breath as Malcolm Marshall, Curtly Ambrose or Dennis Lillee. One hesitates to think what they might do to England in their present state.

England's batsmen are clearly so used to receiving two "cafeteria" deliveries (so called because you can help yourself to them) per over in county cricket, that when somebody begins to persist with old-fashioned virtues of line and length, the only option is to concede to their persistence and get out. Thisweakness scorns the claim of the coach, Keith Fletcher, that without Warne the series would be closely contested.

England's batsmen are in such disarray that the Australian bowlers do not even have to strive for perfection to get them out. True, the Poms did not get the rub of the green from several marginal umpiring decisions, but not one of Atherton, Thorpe, Gatting and Gooch was bowled out in the second innings by anything approaching a good delivery. However it was the Essex batsman's tame dismissal in the first innings, when he patted McDermott's full toss straight back to him, that caught the mood of a team totally bereft of confidence and direction.

Doug Walters, one of Australia's greatest Test winners with the bat, reckons England have got Shane Warne mania. "They haven't got a clue how to play him. They are so worried about him that it affects everything else they do," he said. "Something must bewrong with the structure of English cricket. They've got heaps of people, but they must start nurturing the kids at grass-roots level."

Another ex-player, Bill Brown, one of Australia's premier batsmen of the 1930s and 1940s, believes that England are lacking just one or two great players, such as Len Hutton or Wally Hammond, men who can lift and inspire a team. Gary Gilmour, who played for Australia in the inaugural World Cup in 1975, believes such inspiration should come from the captain and believes that the wrong man is leading England. "Stewart seems to be able to get something out of the team that Atherton isn't able to." With an English bookie offering odds of 7-4 against Atherton being captain for the forthcoming series with the West Indies, he is not alone in his thinking.

This is a little unfair on the England captain, who is still relatively new to the job. In any case, when Atherton succeeded Gooch as skipper he was roundly acclaimed as being the right man for the job. Even Ian Chappell, that most grudging of praise-bearers for the old enemy, thought it the right move. Now many aren't quite so sure. Like Mike Brearley, he is cerebral enough for the job, but can he motivate his men when spirits are low? Judging from his body language at the MCG, he seemed r esigned to ahelplessness that made his tactics ponderous and negative.

Why, for instance, if England hold Warne in such high regard, did they win the toss and put the opposition in? Was it a question of the bowlers getting the most out of the pitch, or was it the more negative decision of not wanting to face the Aussie bowlers on it while the surface was still damp? In the 1982-83 series, Bob Willis made the same decision in Adelaide and lost the game. He was pilloried for it as Australia went on to win the Ashes 2-1.

In the post-match press conference, many of the Australian media thought Atherton's demeanour reminiscent of Allan Border's during his dark and unfulfilling days of the mid-1980s when Australian cricket was in a parlous state and Bobby Simpson had yet toappear on the scene. Then Border was frequently criticised for his lack of enterprise, Australia's constant failures bringing about a pattern of defensiveness so strong that it seemed to have become etched in his mind.

As Border knows, and Atherton is just finding out, negative states of mind are hard to break, and when defeats worsen, trial by both media and public becomes a daily event. Border went through some testing times, becoming far more tetchy than he was as the loyal foot-soldier who enjoyed his cricket under other captains. In the end his tenacity prevailed and he inspired a motley bunch of young men to give their all and more, for the sake of cap and country. Atherton, now close to an all-time low, should draw succour from such events.

Before the tour began, Ray Illingworth conceded that England did not possess a powerful bowling line-up. This is not strictly true for, according to one Australian journalist, England's bowling statistics would be a lot better if they only had the opportunity to bowl at their own batsmen. As Atherton has rightly pointed out, Test matches are not won with the kind of scores England's batsmen have been posting. With totals of 167, 323, 212 and 93 so far in the series, England would be hard-pressed to haveachieved something respectable even if they had both Warne and Ambrose.

Unlike the first innings of the Brisbane Test, England's bowlers at least made Australia's batsmen fight for their runs in Melbourne. The same cannot be said of their fielding, which is light years behind the Australians'. Their coach, Bobby Simpson, must take a bow for this. As England capitulated on the last morning, they snared every chance offered, with Boon's diving effort to give Warne his hat-trick a class effort.

In contrast, England dropped several chances and were lethargic. Australia are better drilled too, being thorough in preparation, neat in execution and clinical in their disposal of the opposition.

There is a belief widely held here at the moment that England's cricketers belong to another age, as does their style of cricket, which has been described as uneducated, indecisive and impoverished. The critics have a point, and particularly lamentable were the time- wasting tactics and negativity that saw a gifted spinner such as Phil Tufnell having to bowl most of his deliveries from over the wicket.

But as nearly everyone recognises, the problems are deeper-seated and can be traced all the way back to dear old Blighty where an antediluvian system dominated by short-sighted and small-minded counties holds back what should be a burgeoning modern game.

As Bill Johnston, a fine Aussie fast bowler of the 1940s and 1950s, remarked: "Village cricket in England is a very pleasant game, but I think a lot of village cricket thinking still comes through at Test level."