Savage blow to England's soft underbelly As the Ashes quest of Atherton's men takes a turn for the worse, the Australian s have some home truths for the tourists

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The Independent Online
IF IT is Sunday, it must be Toowoomba. But Michael Atherton, the England cricket captain, could be excused for not knowing where he is, such has been the emotional ebb and flow of the past seven days. In purely cricketing terms, this has been the most harrowing week since his elevation to the captaincy.

It began with embarrassing back-to-back defeats, inflicted by teenagers barely out of long socks, and was followed - as is so often the case when England are written off - by a gutsy win over Australia A. One-day cricket can be an unreliable yardstick bywhich to judge a team. Slices of luck and solo performances can turn a game, but even the fickleness of pyjama cricket cannot hide the character of a team as bereft of ideas and belief as England were against Zimbabwe two days later.

It was perhaps Atherton's misfortune to be back at the helm having missed Tuesday night's win at the MCG. Missing out on the lone high point of the tour so far will have more read into it than is fair. England's problems do not stem from the leadership, rather from a history of soft cricket. England, as someone shrewdly observed, are now the only side to have been beaten by every team from A to Z. That is as about as bad as it can get.

These mishaps come as no surprise to the Australians, who have long thought the English game to be inert and bankrupt of ideas, a state of affairs that led Bill Lawry to liken our county cricket to Melbourne District fifth grade - the weakest of the keenly contested grade competitions played in major Australian cities.

Lawry may have been dealing in some good old pom-baiting hyperbole, but the truth of the matter is that Australian players are far more hardened to competition than their English counterparts. One has only to cast an eye back to the Ashes series of 1993 and compare the differing fortunes of Michael Slater and Mark Lathwell. Both are talented opening batsmen of similar age and experience. Yet only Slater had the street-wise nous to cope at the higher level, not the least bit over-awed by his presence next to the idols of his youth.

Tough competition begins at an early age in the Aussie cricket culture. First, there is a state-wide knock-out between high schools. Instead of localised games, this pits the best against the best. In addition, any schoolboy showing promise will be playing first or second grade cricket against men by the time he has reached 16.

"In Australia, if you are good as a kid, you grow up playing against older blokes," said Geoff Lawson, the fast bowler who tormented England during the 1982/83 Ashes series. "In England, I played for Haslingden in the Lancashire League. It was hard, withno sentimentality about keeping stalwarts in the side. But competition is localised. The standard needs to be raised by playing teams from a wider area."

The same analysis can doubtless be applied to county cricket. With 18 teams all playing each other on the same footing, there is a dilution of resources that does not test the best until international cricket beckons, when they are often found wanting. Far better to have two divisions with a system of promotion and relegation. Then the most talented players will gravitate towards the best counties via a transfer market, while the second division teams will be encouraged to take risks and bring on young talent in a bid for promotion.

"It is all well and good identifying youthful talent," explained Greg Chappell, "but it must be given the opportunity to flourish as well. That was the dilemma facing the Australian Cricket Board when they decided to put an A team into the World Series. It's hard to be patient when you're young, and these fellows need a yardstick by which to judge themselves. It will keep them interested. Anyway, it's good to be tested early on, as a player of 23 is far less affected by setbacks than a player who gets his first chance at 27."

Chappell, who spent two years in English county cricket with Somerset in 1969/70, reckons the English system breeds bad habits. For one thing, there are too many opportunities to bat, so that fighting tooth and nail to protect your wicket does not becomean issue. This was something that Brian Lara identified last summer in a programme much reduced since Chappell's days in the west country.

Second, the more of a full-time job that cricket becomes, the harder it is to be spontaneous, and indulge the instincts that breed flair and passion. There is little doubt that English county cricket and, by extension, Test cricket is based on caution. This is not surprising. The more matches there are, the more players tend to play the percentages, the more negatives they see, and the fewer risks they take.

As Chappell points out: "In Australia, the worst thing that could happen to me is that I could lose my place, but not my job. Couple that with a system where fewer games mean that batsmen face bowlers at their physical and mental peak, and you have something worthwhile. Both John Snow and Bob Willis were persecuted for saving themselves for Test matches, but you need time to prepare for big games. You can't maintain an intensity of aggression if there are too many games."

There is no doubt that county cricket is too leisurely. It has a soft underbelly made flabby by the demands of an unwieldy system that owes everything to tradition. By contrast, and as England have found out on this tour, Australian cricket is hard, witha well-honed competitive edge. It has always been thus, as the following anecdote reveals.

In 1979, against New South Wales, England began their second innings needing two runs to win. The home team's captain approached his young fast bowler Geoff Lawson, and with rare concern told him not to bother to get loose. "You must be joking, mate," shouted Lawson strapping his ankles up with tape. "I want to get a Pom or two, if I can." He didn't, but after three successive bouncers at Geoff Boycott, the Yorkshireman gloved the fourth over slip for the winning runs. In England such aggressive habitsare the exception. In Australia, they are a way of life.