Gooch calls for pride to end the fall

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England last night finally jettisoned their fingers-crossed fantasy that this Ashes tour will somehow put itself right and, in the unlikely setting of a hotel room here, faced up to the grim reality that it is now time to start kicking arses to av oid yet another Australian debacle.

Apart from two players left behind in Sydney, Joey Benjamin with shingles and Craig White with a torn side muscle, 15 players and the team manager, Keith Fletcher, got verbally stuck in at a behind-closed-doors meeting that only just stopped short of throwing the hotel crockery around the room.

"It is time," Fletcher said, "for a few home truths and for a few players to start holding up their hands. Losing all the time does hurt us, believe me, but with the next Test match coming up next week some hard talking is needed to try and get people more focused and believing that they really can compete with Australia."

One of the angriest players at last night's meeting was the former captain, Graham Gooch, who said: "We are making the same old mistakes that we did out here four years ago. We are not covered with world-class players in every position and if we don't get fully committed from the first ball of every day's play we are going to be stuffed again.

"I've been in this position before and I know just how Mike Atherton is feeling. It is soul-destroying for him. We are playing very poor cricket, to put it mildly, and we all have to take the responsibility to put it right. We need more desire, more committment and more motivation, and we have to show the opposition that we mean business.

"If Athers is feeling helpless at the moment, I can sympathise only too well. When I resigned during the last Ashes series I was put under pressure not to, but there was simply no response any more. I did not do the job for the ego trip of being in charge but because I desperately wanted England to win, and once I realised I could not motivate the players any more that was it. We have got to get behind the captain and start playing with some pride and passion. Start showing we are sick and tired of being trodden on."

Fletcher, Gooch's mentor at Essex, had to be heavily persuaded to leave the family environment at Chelmsford to take on the England job and though he said yesterday that he had "no intention" of not seeing out the remaining two and a half years of his five-year contract, he has visibly aged out here.

Not all the players regard him as a great motivator and tub-thumping has never been Fletcher's way. He is something of a remote figure for many of the players, spending most of his evenings dining out with his wife, Sue, and the team scorer, Alex Davis.

In a country with as many social diversions as Australia, it is far easier for an older member of the party, such as Fletcher, to become cut off.

Fletcher has discovered that international cricket is a far harder game than when he played it and that ability alone is not enough. "An itinerary such as this can really take it out of you," he said. "We seem to be travelling non-stop, one-day internationals really take it out of you, and we could ideally have done with more rest periods.

"However, we have really got to start looking at ourselves when we can't beat the likes of Zimbabwe. Chasing 206 the other night should have been a doddle, but we are slightly out of form and most of all lack confidence. You can't say that these are not the best players in England because they are."

And therein lies the worry. Micky Stewart, Fletcher's predecessor, realised pretty quickly that England was the one country where its cricket was not directly geared to the national team, and Fletcher last night spoke about experiencing the same frustrations. At the moment, Fletcher is quietly tearing his hair out at England's patent inadequacies and has the look and gait of a man not too far away from a phone call to the Samaritans.

However, Fletcher will have to settle for some slightly earthier and less sensitive advice as he will be joined shortly by Raymond Illingworth. Fletcher says he is "quite prepared to listen to anything he has to say", which is just as well given that theEngland chairman is rarely short of an opinion.

Meanwhile, Atherton now has a thigh strain to go with his back problems, Alec Stewart's back has also seized up, Phillip DeFreitas has a calf strain, and 10 of the originally selected 16 have now either gone bust or fallen ill on this tour. England are actively considering flying in the Derbyshire all-rounder Dominic Cork, but he would not be considered in any event until after the third Test in Sydney. And by then, unless England pull their collective finger out, the only corks that matter will be being popped in the Australian dressing-room.

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