Hard truths of a soft centre

Derek Pringle feels major surgery is required to restore the national health After the calamitous campaign in Australia, English cricket now needs to adopt an aggressive stance
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The Independent Online
IT MAY have started out as a short-term plan to counter a leg- spinner and win the Ashes, but England's winter not only ended with a crushing defeat at the hands of a pace man, but with a familiar long-term headache to boot. Shane Warne may have won the early skirmishes for Australia, but it was Craig McDermott who inflicted the heavy casualties that won the war against a side ill-equipped for modern combat on big grounds.

For nigh on four months, England's ill-fated, ill-considered team were rarely a match for their Australian counterparts. It would have been an illusion and a travesty had the series ended 2-2. Australia were superior in all departments and Michael Atherton's end-of-series cri de coeur, when he called for structural changes in the county game as well as imploring selectors to invest in youth, said as much. Any recovery will require more than minor surgery if English cricket is to become a world force once more.

To his credit, Atherton refused to hide behind the excuses of a ludicrous injury list that saw six replacements fly in at various stages of the tour. He is a stubborn cove, who, like his chairman of selectors, Raymond Illingworth, rarely admits his mistakes, though he conceded to being negative in Melbourne and a "bit off the pace" in Sydney. This is in direct contrast to their painfully honest team manager Keith Fletcher, who is becoming more marginalised by the day.

It is increasingly obvious there is not room for all three, if only for the reason that they keep treading on each other's feet, and some of their public bickerings over selection have been more passable as impressions of The Three Stooges than the Three Wise Men.

Like Gooch before him, Atherton's contribution as captain has been enormous. As his predecessor had done in Australia four years ago, Atherton led by example, and his sheer obduracy at the crease meant he batted uncowed for the equivalent of five whole days throughout the series.

This, coupled with the endless rounds of press conferences and team crises inevitably took their toll, and he spent most of the flight home wrapped in a blanket, emotionally and physically spent. He had hit the wall, admitting as much in Perth, and while others still had it in them to enjoy the in- flight hospitality, the England captain rarely opened his eyes.

His bravery and commitment won him the admiration of the Australian players and press. Both he and Mark Taylor were applauded as they left the final press conference for the spirit in which they conducted affairs. Taylor has been impressive in keeping Aussie excesses like sledging in check, while channelling the aggression of his players solely towards the task in hand.

He has quickly exerted his authority, as Atherton might had the England captain been given the kind of side he'd led in the West Indies. Allowing a captain to have the team he wants will not necessarily lead to better results. The players Atherton would like may not always be the best ones and in any case he would have to rely on reports, impartial or otherwise, on emerging talent. What is deperately needed is a deeper trust to be forged between players, captain and selectors, so that players are not perpetually fearful for their place in the side.

Negativity may not be at the heart of every England player's approach, but it is widespread and stems directly from the job protectionism felt by county cricketers, many of whom start their careers with the sole objective of surviving long enough to get a benefit.

It is no surprise that when England have managed to beat Australia and the West Indies, they have done so when the series has been lost. This is consistent with the malaise, for once a side can fall no further and players realise wholesale changes are likely to be made, they begin to risk all in a bid to win, and as we have seen, often succeed.

England's win in Adelaide testified to this. For four days they had been outplayed until DeFreitas, no doubt seeing career oblivion unfolding in front of him, batted like a man possessed and gave England a real chance of victory which, for once, was taken. That other under-achiever, Chris Lewis, contributed as much as anyone with the ball in a display of verve not seen since his debut season.

What England need are aggressive young players unafraid of failure, yet able to improvise should a plan begin to go wrong. As Atherton has said, all is not doom within English cricket and he earmarked Graham Thorpe, who scored 444 runs at an average of just under 50, as the player England could base their batting around for the next eight years.

One-off performances by Darren Gough and DeFreitas apart, Thorpe was the only batsman who consistently took the attack to Warne and McDermott, and by the end of this summer, he should be the finished product. Gough is also an exciting prospect, who bowled with both head and heart to finish the series with 20 wickets from only three Tests. But the question remains: will he be able to stay free of injury to keep improving?

The other bowlers did a creditable enough job. Angus Fraser showed what folly it was to leave him behind and might have bowled England to victory in Sydney. Devon Malcolm, too, had his moments. His bursts in Adelaide and Perth were every bit as brutal as the one that demolished South Africa at The Oval, yet they failed to give him the rewards he deserved.

But if England's bowling and batting occasionally achieved parity with the Aussies, the fielding did not. This was particularly true of the ground fielding; when it is consider how often the likes of Michael Slater and the Waugh brothers pinched singles and turned ones into twos, England needed to make up 50 runs a Test.

The panaceas will be elusive until the County-led power base of the game has been eroded. As someone close to the TCCB said: "There are too many self-interested little despots all intent on running their kingdoms to be able to bring in the sweeping changes required."

This may be true, but changes need to start earlier than that, either in schools or in the clubs. The output of any system is dependent on the quality of its inputs and English cricket is not getting enough good young players to take the game up. Of those who do, the majority end up playing a soft, social version of club cricket, quite unlike the hard-edged Grade game played in Australian cities. Until that is remedied, English cricket will always have a soft centre and we shall remain the custard tarts of world cricket.

Four traumas and a triumph: How the drama unfolded

FIRST TEST

Brisbane, 25-29 November

Australia 426 (M J Slater 176, M E Waugh 140, M A Taylor 59; D Gough 4-107) and 248-8dec (M A Taylor 58; P C R Tufnell 4-79).

England 167 (M A Atherton 54; C J McDermott 6-53) and 323 (G A Hick 80, G P Thorpe 67, G A Gooch 56; S K Warne 8-71).

Australia won by 184 runs

Heroes: Graeme Hick and Graham Thorpe, who put on 160 in the second innings; Anna Gough, who did not ring husband Darren to say she had given birth so he could sleep undisturbed.

Anti-hero: Ray Illingworth, who rounded up a group of journalists in a London pub and criticised the England captain, the England team manager and the England tour manager.

Injury victims: Devon Malcolm, who had chicken-pox, but managed to get to the players' balcony; Martin McCague (gastro-enteritis).

New faces: None, but Angus Fraser was placed on stand-by and did some TV work.

Paper talk: "English cricket has little relevance today. The days of the international community looking to Lord's for direction, instruction and reassurance have long gone." The Australian

SECOND TEST

Melbourne, 24-29 December

Australia 279 (S R Waugh 94no, M E Waugh 71; D Gough 4-60) and 320-7dec (D C Boon 131).

England 212 (G P Thorpe 51; S K Warne 6-64) and 92 (C J McDermott 5-42).

Australia won by 295 runs

Hero: Alec Stewart, who batted at No 7 in the second innings after an injection in his finger and planted his first delivery from Warne for four.

Anti-hero: Craig McDermott, whose bowling took eight wickets and broke one finger.

Injury victims: Martin McCague left on 12 December after a stress fracture of the right shin; the day after, Craig White tore muscles in his abdomen; six days before the Test Shaun Udal goes home. Worse was Stewart's injury.

New faces: Mark Ilott and Jack Russell, who were to go on the England A tour (Ilott later made it to India, and got injured); Angus Fraser left Sydney Grade cricket to replace McCague.

Paper talk: "Instead of arrows on their clothes, each player should have `England Cricketer' smeared on his back. No two words could generate more public condemnation." Sun

THIRD TEST

Sydney, 1-5 January

England 309 (M A Atherton 88, J P Crawley 72, D Gough 51; C J McDermott 5-101) and 255-2dec (G A Hick 98no, M A Atherton 67).

Australia 116 (D Gough 6-49) and 344-7 (M A Taylor 113, M J Slater 103; A R C Fraser 5-73).

Match drawn

Hero: Darren Gough, who succeeded Botham as "Britain's favourite cricketer", scoring 51 in 47 balls and taking 6-49 in the first innings.

Anti-heroes: Mike Atherton (as far as Graeme Hick was concerned) after his declaration angered the Worcestershire batsman who was two runs short of his maiden Ashes century; Hick (as far as Atherton was concerned) whose churlish reaction to the declaration did little for team spirit.

Injury victims: Hick's bruised pride.

New faces: Jack Russell, Neil Fairbrother, who flew in from South Africa (via London, for some reason) where he had been playing for Transvaal.

Paper talk: "England are weaker than Australia and are likely to remain so. Sometimes they will look like prats, as in Melbourne; sometimes they will get it together, as they did here." Guardian

FOURTH TEST

Adelaide, 26-30 January

England 353 (M W Gatting 117, M A Atherton 80) and 328 (P A J DeFreitas 88, G P Thorpe 83, J P Crawley 71; M E Waugh 5-40).

Australia 419 (G S Blewett 102no, M A Taylor 90, I A Healy 74, M J Slater 67) and 156 (I A Healy 51no; C C Lewis 4-24, D E Malcolm 4-39).

England won by 106 runs

Hero: Phillip DeFreitas, whose 88 in the second innings paved the way for England's win.

Anti-heroes: Chris Lewis, for gesturing after Craig McDermott, having dismissed him; the match referee, John Reid, who fined Lewis £750.

Injury victims: Gough, who completed his transition to English folk hero by breaking his foot in the course of duty, having to fly home; Neil Fairbrother tore a shoulder muscle; Alec Stewart was finally beaten by his finger injury when hit on it during the match against Victoria; Graeme Hick injured back.

New faces: Chris Lewis, playing for a Melbourne club, was called in for Gough then took Hick's place in the Test.

Paper talk: Before long, England will discover the art of winning Test matches when they are not battered, bruised and beaten." Daily Telegraph

FIFTH TEST

Perth, 3-7 February

Australia 402 (M J Slater 124, S R Waugh 99no, M E Waugh 88) and 345- 8dec (G S Blewett 115, S R Waugh 80, M A Taylor 52).

England 295 (G P Thorpe 123, M R Ramprakash 72) and 123 (C J McDermott 6-38).

Australia won by 329 runs

Hero: Graham Thorpe, who scored as many in his first innings as England did in their second, and Mark Ramprakash, who grasped his latest Test chance with a first-innings 72.

Anti-heroes: England's batsmen in the second inings (apart from Ramprakash and Rhodes), who collapsed to 27-5.

Injury victims: Hardly anyone left to get injured; but Ian Healy, the Australian wicketkeeper, was head-butted by an England fan in a hotel after the game.

New faces: Ramprakash, who actually arrived from the England A tour on the first day of the Fourth Test, but not soon enough to play.

Paper talk: "The end, when it came, was swift, cruel and shambolic. In their time, Graham Gooch and Mike Gatting . . . have done enough for the game to deserve better than the sad, undignified farewell it gave them." Daily Mail

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