Harrowing glimpse of the 2004 Ashes

View from Oz

John Benaud
Sunday 17 November 2002 01:00

When England were in mid-disintegration in Brisbane – about the time of the Crawley run-out débâcle – and the Australians' glee knew no bounds and they were brassily showing it off, the commentator Tony Greig cautioned: "Enjoy it while you can, because this game has a habit of coming back and cutting off your legs."

As a former England captain, of course, Tony was understandably hurting, but such optimism surely went beyond bravado and bordered on hallucination, for England cannot win this series.

Another former captain, Mike Atherton, was more realistic: "I think I'm going to have a long summer in the commentary box," he said. For Tony's benefit, the last time Australia were all out in the seventies was in the Eighties, strangely enough also on the second Sunday in November (1984) – talk about déjà vu. On that occasion, Kim Hughes won the toss in Perth and sent West Indies in. They made 416, Australia made 76 and 228 and the Test was over a day and two sessions short of the scheduled five days.

Later, Australia developed character under Allan Border, but it wasn't until Mark Taylor's team beat West Indies at Sabina Park in 1995 to clinch the series 2-1 that the irresistible winning force Australia are today was spawned.

Taylor had Slater, Boon, Mark Waugh, Steve Waugh, Blewett, Healy, Julian, Reiffel, Warne, McGrath. This Australia have had a total batting make-over, a different captain and wicketkeeper, yet remain a ruthless powerhouse. Cricket's cold-blooded killers, Steve Waugh, McGrath and Warne, lead a gang of fierce competitors fashioned on the Australian youth production line. So, what will Australia be like in 2004 when they next have to defend the Ashes, in England?

There have been some pointers for England in the match against Australia A. Fickle weather in Hobart, where a balmy afternoon can follow rain, hail, snow and a gale before lunch, sometimes ruins these matches, but the Australian selectors regard them as invaluable in the forward-planning process. They have chosen a mix of senior types, Blewett, Elliott and Maher, as a crutch for the hopefuls Michael Clarke, Marcus North and Martin Love. In two years, Waugh will be long gone. His batting at the Gabba was reminiscent of Border in decline, unable to get on top of bowlers he would once have slaughtered. Worse, the English bowling plan against him worked. Unless Waugh suddenly rediscovers his touch, the captaincy will pass to Ponting after the Sydney Test – it is unlikely to happen before, even if the Ashes are won.

The switch might not be as smooth as from Taylor to Waugh. Ponting faces the immediate trial of a tour to the West Indies. It's never easy to win there, and more pressure will build because Ponting is still to settle the query about his talent at No 3, where his hard hands get him into strife against the ball pitched up and moving away. He often plays well in front of himself with an open bat-face. That might not be much of a problem against the bumper-bangers in the Caribbean, but surely could be in old-fashioned English conditions.

Love, tall and patient, is a run accountant, Boon-like in temperament, and appeals as a top-order candidate. In the middle order, Lehmann was nervy and uninspiring at the Gabba, and his age and limited fielding talent suggest that he will always be looking over his shoulder. Two challengers on trial in Hobart are North, a left-hander who plays with the flair of a scoreboard attendant, and Clarke, a busy reminder of dynamic Doug Walters, from the dancing feet to the explosive pull. Freckled baby face, skinny, chockful of confidence – but impatient. He'll grow out of that.

McGrath and Warne are looking as strong as ever, but doubts about Gillespie's fitness and Lee's waywardness are constant, and the trialling of two right-arm seam bowlers, Stuart Clark and Ashley Noffke, and the very pacy Brad Williams was just sensible insurance.

As is the blooding of the young off-spinner Nathan Hauritz for Warne, although if the champion leg-spinner were to drop out soon it is likely Stuart MacGill would come in.

For their part, Duncan Fletcher and Nasser Hussain need to change the balance of their team. It is folly to have Stewart in the top six against Australia, and has been for a long time. Choose a genuine No 6 batsman, which means playing three pace bowlers, plus a spinner.

For 2004, Jones pace, Caddick seam, Hoggard swing, Giles spin, appeals as a good attack balance, but any success would depend on more attention to fundamentals than on display at the Gabba. Better lines and length, sharper catching, equals more pressure.

The top five batsmen are talented. Hussain concedes he should have batted first. For the rest of the series he should, just to get his batsmen's heads right for when they are sent in to face McGrath. And England need to develop more all-rounders – show the bowlers how to hold a bat. In the Gabba wash-up, Warne's smashing innings might have impacted on England's chances just as much as his bowling.

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