Gatting finds the edge

Stephen Brenkley discovers that the A team's success was built on a team effort
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The Independent Online
While it would be an overstatement to suggest that Mike Gatting has Aussies for breakfast, his thoughts should be accorded profound respect in any assessment of how to beat them. He was the last England captain, nearly 10 years ago, to win the Ashes and he returned yesterday from another successful Antipodean campaign, this time as coach.

The success of England A, often against depleted state opposition, may hardly have had Aussies crying into their eskies - most of them are much too busy crowing about what they are doing to the West Indies for that - but nor should it be underestimated. A record of six wins and three draws from a tour of 10 matches comes into the category of mission accomplished, not least because when an A team previously toured Australia four winters ago they failed to win a first-class match and lost four times in all.

"Australians aren't invincible at all," Gatting said, with the advantage of being one of the few Englishmen in a generation to have proved it. "It's a mistake to think that. But they are always competitive and they're a team. We have to strive for the same collectiveness and cohesion, and I'm sure this tour can only have helped."

Like most worthwhile coaches of winning sides, Gatting played down his role. The team, he insisted, made the job easy. From the start they demonstrated a willingness for hard work and a hunger for victory. Whether this will matter so much as a dot ball to England's chances of securing the elusive little urn next summer is arguable but Gatting was in no doubt. "There have been 14 guys here who have shown their determination and desire to represent England and to do it well. They have done it together as a team and if somebody has failed others have come in and got runs or taken wickets. These are things that will be remembered next summer."

Gatting did not make the mistake of talking up the standard of the opposition, and conceded the shortage of international matches. Paradoxically, the Australians' own international programme, allied to injuries, weakened some opposition. "But the Australian system is such that they're all competitive," he said. "That's how they play, no coasting. It's got to be good for us."

Coach Gatting, who has so relished the role that he has now declared his interest in becoming a selector, spoke individually to all his players before they embarked for home. He wanted to find what they thought they had achieved and what they now aspired to. "Don't forget there were four players who had already played Test cricket with us. We knew about them. I would say from this trip that another three or four have shown that they'll come through."

He was not naming names but it is clear that Mark Butcher among the batsmen and Dean Headley of the bowlers have prospered. Butcher's failure to make a century after six times passing 50 was a solitary blight on a tour which followed a prolific summer for Surrey. As an opener he increasingly looks capable of Test cricket; actually getting into the England top order may be the hard part.

Headley looks to be following Dominic Cork as a bowler, using A tours as part of the maturing process. He progressed in Pakistan last winter, had a hugely encouraging summer for Kent and produced a vintage performance early into the Australian trip by taking a career-best 11 for 98 to effect a remarkable 12-run victory over South Australia, the Sheffield Shield holders. Only a long-distance spat with Michael Atherton - in which Headley said England's captain doubted his ability to bowl an outswinger and Atherton subsequently expressed his displeasure at the remark - brought rain on his parade.

Then there were Owais Shah and Adam Hollioake, both of them, for differing reasons, surprise choices, the former because he is still that most un- English of creatures in international colours, a teenager, and the latter because he was captain. Perhaps the best thing that can be said of Shah, who got 50 in the first match when the rest of the side were yet to settle, is that he has done no harm at all to the future prospects of other teenagers.

"He simply didn't let us down," said Gatting and confirmed Shah's likely part in the Middlesex team next summer, school permitting. As for Hollioake, he continuously exhibited captaincy virtues - enthusiasm, hardness and a bracing ability to lead from the front. "You've got to mark him down as one," said Gatting.

But the coach's most telling words were concerned not with quality but quantity. "We can certainly help our youngsters' competitive edge by getting them involved earlier in hard games. But part of the reason the Australians are so refined in that direction is that they play less. Eight games a season gives them time to get fit and stay fit in between." Which may still be the biggest Australian lesson of all.