Tim de Lisle: How to reclaim the Ashes: hold the catches and keep away from McGrath

Wednesday 18 September 2002 00:00
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Eight things England must do to win the Ashes:

1) Don't touch Glenn McGrath. In the past six years, England have had only to set eyes on McGrath to capitulate. And the figures confirm that they have learnt nothing, even since Duncan Fletcher came on board. In three full Ashes series McGrath has taken 36 wickets at 19, 24 wickets at 20 and 32 wickets at 17. Watching them last summer, as he played for Middlesex, was the New Zealand captain, Stephen Fleming, who noticed that most of McGrath's wicket-taking deliveries were missing off stump. So last winter the New Zealanders left everything they could, often on a length, and attacked only when McGrath reacted by bowling straighter. Result: McGrath took almost as few wickets in the series (five) as he scored runs (none). England will be helped by not having Mike Atherton on board. An outstanding player in most situations, Atherton was a walking wicket against McGrath, responsible for 19 of McGrath's 98 Ashes wickets. His role is in danger of being taken this time by John Crawley, who gets similarly squared up, but at least he will be tucked away down the order. The top four must play McGrath the Kiwi way and be prepared to turn the corridor of uncertainty into the corridor of utter tedium.

2) Attack Shane Warne. England's other nemesis needs to be handled quite differently, with calculated aggression. In the last decade, Warne has gone for three an over in a series only five times – twice in India, once in West Indies, and twice against New Zealand, the only team to do it without a genius to call upon, and the only team to do it in Australia. They milked him for 3.45 an over, and his strike-rate dived, or ballooned, to a wicket every 20 overs. The weather had something to do with it – cool and damp, just how the Kiwis like it – and the Trans-Tasman Trophy does have a way of bringing out the worst in the Aussies, just as the Ashes bring out the best in them. But if Fleming can outwit them, Fletcher can, too.

3) Don't lose an early wicket. England's men of the moment are Michael Vaughan, who averaged 90 in Tests this summer, and Marcus Trescothick, who did slightly better (93). They have started so well as an opening pair, there is actually a case for breaking them up: against a strong attack, you normally lose one opener early, and England would rather that were Mark Butcher than the new, buccaneering Vaughan. But it won't happen, and if it doesn't, the two of them will just have to strike the right balance early on, as they didn't in New Zealand this year, when England's average opening stand (22) was even feebler than in the 2001 Ashes (25).

4) Use spin as an attacking weapon. Australia are vulnerable to slow bowling, and not just the exotic flavours purveyed by Harbhajan and Murali. Last winter, Daniel Vettori and Nicky Boje both bothered them, taking 17 wickets in four Tests between them at an average of 30. The snag for England is that Ashley Giles has been used defensively so often, he has forgotten how to attack. His strike-rate against India was dismal – a wicket every 25 overs, whereas Vaughan's occasional off-breaks managed a wicket every 10 overs. Either Vaughan needs to bowl more, or Giles has to be allowed to aim at off stump.

5) Get Hayden and Langer. In six Tests last winter, Matt Hayden and Justin Langer went from an odd couple – both left-handed, Langer not a regular opener – to the first opening pair in the whole of Test history to compile four stands of 200 or more. It was Angus Fraser who worked out their secret: like a right-and-left combination, they force the bowlers to bowl in two quite different areas – but in terms of length not line. Hayden is a big front-foot biffer; Langer is a little back-foot nudger. Changing length is not England's strong point, so man-to-man marking may be required – Andy Caddick or Andy Flintoff to push Hayden back, Matthew Hoggard to draw Langer forward. The importance of Darren Gough could be over- estimated: in 2001, he didn't get Hayden out once.

6) Break Stewart's jinx. Alec Stewart, the most durable of all England's cricketers, has also been one of the best – except against Australia. Like Atherton, he has reserved his worst for the Ashes, making only one hundred in 22 Tests, which came when he threw off the wicketkeeping gloves at Melbourne in 1998. Not much chance of that now.

The bad news is that Atherton never cracked it. The good news is that Stewart, an obsessively tidy person and a more flexible cricketer than Atherton, has just repaired a ropey record against India, lifting his average from 31 to 40. Say what you like about batting with the tail, those not-outs do come in handy.

7) Don't get injured. England won't necessarily have to be at full strength to match Australia – their best innings last time were both played by replacements, Butcher and Mark Ramprakash – but the injury list will need to come down to normal proportions. One or two, fine; five or six, forget it.

8) Hold their catches. England lost the last Ashes series on the third morning at Lord's, when they dropped five catches. A settled slip cordon would be a start: Thorpe at first, Flintoff at second, Butcher at third, with Trescothick and Vaughan pushing hard for places. It all comes back to those two.

Tim de Lisle is editor of Wisden Cricketers' Almanack 2003

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