Tributes all round to a totem

Cricket: Tim de Lisle analyses the talents of a country boy now a South African giant
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The Independent Online
THE air is thick with praise for Brian McMillan. "He was the difference between the two sides," says Mike Atherton. "The best all-rounder in the world by a country mile," says Ian Botham, an authority not just on all- rounders but, through his shootin', fishin' and charity walkin', on country miles too.

Coopers & Lybrand, the ratings people, selected their World XI on Friday and included only two players from the England-South Africa series - Allan Donald and McMillan. (Atherton was pipped, as both batsman and captain, by Mark Taylor). When England recently sent for Craig White, on the strength of a moderate A tour and virtually no one-day international experience, the reason had to be McMillan-envy. The man they call Big Mac is the flavour of the month.

The series averages tell a less flattering story. McMillan the batsman, whose technique is so admirable that even Geoffrey Boycott has pleasant things to say about it, passed 50 only once - when he made that fine unbeaten 100 in Johannesburg. McMillan the bowler, whose hostility and variety drew acclaim from all sides, took eight wickets in the series, which was fewer, in more overs, than Peter Martin or Richard Illingworth. McMillan the slip fielder scooped up five catches in his bucket hands, but that was no more than Daryll Cullinan and two fewer than Andrew Hudson.

Atherton is not a man to take issue with lightly. He spent more time out in the middle than anyone else in the series, and when he reflects on a contest he does with the trained mind of the history graduate. But the difference between the two sides was surely that one played much better than the other last week at Newlands, and McMillan's contribution to that was slender: one wicket, 11 runs and three catches. The wicket was Alec Stewart, in the first innings, played on - so not much credit to the bowler.

Some observers were surprised that Donald was named Man of the Series as well as the Match, but that was one of the winter's better decisions. When it came down to it, the match was the series, and the most memorable thing McMillan did in those super-charged last three days was to join forces with Hansie Cronje during the Dave Orchard fiasco and make a peculiar attempt to persuade Graham Thorpe to give himself out.

It was typical of McMillan that his part in the incident went unpunished and virtually unnoticed. The big country boy has a rare ability to come out of things smelling of roses. This isn't to say that he's a bad player. There must be a sound reason why so many good judges admire him. He seems to be a totem, the way Merv Hughes used to be for Australia - big, strong, mouthy, indomitable, a player who makes his team-mates feel better about themselves.

Atherton has now joined Ray Illingworth in bemoaning England's lack of a batting all-rounder. Clearly they would be the stronger for having one, but it's by no means a must. The West Indies have Carl Hooper, but he's only worth one wicket per Test and his batting, though wonderfully elegant, seldom involves large numbers of runs. Pakistan haven't had a real all-rounder since the last days of Imran Khan; Wasim Akram is a great bowler who bats a bit. Australia, the de facto world champions, only have one occasionally, when Steve Waugh's back is in working order: No 1 in the ratings as a batsman, he does not make the top 30 as a bowler.

What England need, more than McMillan's runs or wickets, is his ability to be a fulcrum and a focus. Atherton, magnificent as an opening bat and improving as a captain, is better at responding to situations than shaping them. Of England's other current stars, Jack Russell can't be expected to do everything; and Dominic Cork can raise his own game superbly, but is still too young and self-absorbed to raise anyone else's. Illingworth did him no favours by twice putting him at the head of a green and toothless attack.

The man who ought to be doing a McMillan for England, in terms of personality, is Alec Stewart. He is experienced, naturally ebullient, and ultra-competitive - a world-class hustler and bustler. But in this series he was strangely invisible in the field. Perhaps he was preoccupied with his batting. Perhaps the ball just refused to follow him: he didn't take a single catch in the series, and I can't remember him dropping one.

Perhaps, as with Robin Smith a couple of years ago, his other interests are getting in the way. As well as captaining Surrey, a stressful task at the best of times, he has recently helped set up a sports agency, CML, headed by the Surrey veteran Tony Pigott, which represents Stewart himself, Thorpe and poor old Mark Ramprakash.

Or perhaps he was understandably irked by Illingworth's decision to make him the first touring vice-captain in memory with no say in matters of selection. Whatever the reasons, the best thing that could happen to England in the seven one-dayers, apart from a series win, is a Stewart revival.