Scarred England running scared - an Ashes forum (20 December 1998)

20 December 1998

Scarred England running scared - an Ashes forum

Scyld Berry

Scyld Berry takes the chair for a frank discussion on the latest Ashes blow with Ian Chappell providing the case for the opposition

AN Adelaide restaurant the evening after the third Test is the setting for our mid-series conversation between Mike Atherton, Ian Chappell, Angus Fraser and Peter Roebuck, chaired by Scyld Berry. Atherton and Chappell, as successful as any Australian Test captain after Sir Donald Bradman, have been close friends since the Adelaide Test of 1994-5: the only Test England have won on their last three tours of Australia, it came just after the two had dinner together for the first time. The mood, serious at first, becomes more festive as Bacchus drowns English sorrows.

Scyld Berry: Do we all agree with the proposition that England, in spite of the two defeats here, are becoming a decent mid-table side?

Ian Chappell: That's a bit high for me, mate. If England don't lose 4-0, they'll have a jolly good run from hereon in.

Michael Atherton: We are under-performing compared to the type of cricket we can play. We're dropping the catches and not making first-innings runs.

Peter Roebuck: Apart from a couple of bad days here in Adelaide, I don't think England are playing any differently now from what they did last summer against South Africa. We are out-classed, simple as that.

Angus Fraser: We got out of jail in Brisbane and haven't made the most of it.

SB: I cling to the same belief as Peter, though there's an obvious risk the roof could fall in now that England have nothing to show for their improvement.

IC: You're not playing your best against Australia.

MA: That's true, and I don't know why it is. We seem to reserve our worst for Australia.

SB: Is it relevant that our administrators always send England to Australia straight after a tour of the West Indies and a long domestic season, so we are less rested and prepared for this tour than any other?

AF: We've got to start doing things. . .

IC: Differently.

MA: If you compare my record and Mark Taylor's they are pretty similar - except in Ashes series.

IC: To me, it goes back to this business of mental scarring. I said if it goes wrong for England in Brisbane, all the mental scarring from those five previous lost Ashes series will come flooding back. That applies mainly to the batting. So many of your batsmen have lost to Australia before, it's got to be there, and if you don't pick some new batters I promise you it'll all happen again in 2001. In golf, a friend of mine says, if you've got an opponent, you've got him for all time.

AF: (laughing) Goughy's sussed it. He said the other day we've got to make our bottom four into our top four so we don't have any more collapses at the death: we'll open with Headley and Mullally and I'll go in at three!

IC: The big improvement in England's cricket, to me, has been the bowling.

PR: They're bowling a line now, aren't they, except against Steve Waugh and Ian Healy in Brisbane. In the past they'd be intense for 45 minutes. In this series they've kept coming in.

SB: Does the panel think Alec Stewart should continue to keep wicket, or give it up and open? The only times England have really dominated since Graham Gooch have been when Stewart has opened.

IC: I didn't realise Alec had so many problems coming in against spin.

MA: In the West Indies last winter I felt the best option was for me and Stewie to open and Jack Russell to keep wicket.

AF: (winding up MA) It must be really competitive being a batsman on this tour. Seven of you, and you all play every game.

SB: (to MA) Would you be ready to bat at three in the last two Tests so Stewie can open with Mark Butcher and get started before the spinners come on?

MA: I am an opener by temperament now, but I'm not involved in selection and I'll bat wherever I'm asked.

AF: He'd moan like hell.

SB: Has Butcher got what it takes?

IC: I'll let Athers go first and take the shine off that one.

MA: As usual. (to IC) What do you know about the new ball?

AF: (joining the banter) You were a No 4, weren't you?

IC: I'll just give you a hint, sunshine. In 1975-6, in four digs in Perth, I was in four times out of four in the first over. Does that give you a clue about where I batted?

MA: Sounds a bit like England's No 3 at the moment then. (General mirth at this self-effacing comment.)

IC: Playing as he did in Brisbane, Butcher is a damn good player - if he plays aggressively, and I'm talking now about intent.

PR: You mean aggressive as opposed to submissive.

IC: Exactly.

AF: Like Ramps and Nasser. They've always been fiery and aggressive and pretty passionate because they care. Then people say tut, tut at them.

PR: What about Butcher's footwork?

IC: Mostly he moves before the bowler bowls the ball, which means his footwork isn't related to the ball, and then it's a reach job.

MA: English batsmen move more than Australians before the ball is bowled, and less after it. Butch's game is based on playing down the wicket.

PR: What about Graeme Hick and his footwork?

IC: He's the one England batsman to cope with the full toss from the leg-spinner [Stuart MacGill] and he's the one who has dealt with the short ball and pulled it. You just wonder why he's so timid against pace bowling when you see what he did in Perth. He's got ordinary footwork, but I've seen a few blokes who've had ordinary footwork and been successful in Test cricket because of their approach.

SB: And John Crawley?

IC: There comes a time when you've got to cut a guy loose, and I think you Poms - no, sorry, my father taught me never to say Poms. (Pause for a sip of one of South Australia's more rugged reds). Yeah, there comes a time when you've got to cut a guy loose, and I think you ****ers have reached that point with Crawley. He looks to me like a soft bloke with holes in his technique and he averages five in his first innings against Australia. You might as well send Gus in.

AF: Shane Warne has never got me out.

PR: The problem in England is that the young guys don't put pressure on the older blokes. Our 20-year-olds are as good as Australian 20-year-olds but our 23-year-olds are way behind.

MA: I don't believe in the concept of professional cricket except for the elite. Our system breeds poor human beings generally and soft cricketers. If you don't play county cricket, you can't play for England - that can't be right.

SB: Zimbabwe's relative success suggests that vibrant school and club cricket is more important than a first-class competition, as they haven't got one.

AF: Too many people in England earn a decent living out of the game without being good enough.

IC: I had dinner with Graham Gooch the other night and he was saying you can't go down the track when the spinners are turning. To me, Goochie's well-meaning but he's part of the scarring and he sees the hard side of things. He's like Bobby Simpson - if it's not working, just work harder. When I was touring England in 1968 a county cricketer asked me why I went down the track, then he said if you don't, you eliminate one way of getting out. I just walked away. English players always take the negative option. (Silence while this home truth sinks in.)

You've got to be aggressive, especially against leg-spin. From the age of seven I was coached every day of the summer, not just to get down the track, but that was a large part of it. (He jumps up and startles diners immersed in their calamari with a demonstration of the footwork he teaches to the Academy boys in Adelaide.) Because you didn't put the bad balls from MacGill away in Brisbane, he didn't bowl any short ones here, and the reason why English batsmen don't put the bad balls away is because you don't use your feet and can't read the ball from the hand, only off the wicket.

PR: I was never coached how to use my feet.

MA: I have never ever been coached how to use my feet. When I do, the thought's there at the back of my mind that I might get stumped.

AF: (brightly) Shane Warne's never got me out.

SB: Mike Gatting was the last England batsman to use his feet against spinners.

IC: I don't think England batsmen are any better against leg-spin than they were when Warney bowled that ball to Gatt at Old Trafford in 1993.

SB: How can they improve if there is only Ian Salisbury to face in domestic cricket?

IC: If you want to find out you will. I don't think there's anyone in England with a clue about leg-spin.

MA: I agree with you. We've got a young lad, though, in our second XI at Lancashire who's actually highly promising [Chris Schofield].

SB: He seems to sprint through the crease without spending any time on his front leg.

MA: We need captains who have faith in aggressive spin.

IC: You have got to have some pitches with bounce - not all, but some. That's the only way of finding out who can play, and that applies to batsmen, bowlers, the lot.

AF: The wickets here haven't had bounce for the seamers. Alright, Brisbane and Adelaide have had bounce for the spinners.

SB: The state of this series may be grim for England but it is a fairly normal one. England and Australia have won the same number of Tests in England. In Australia the ratio has been 2-1 in Australia's favour since the First World War.

IC: We've got one huge inbuilt advantage in Australia.

MA: The weather.

IC: Yeah, the weather, plus the fact that it's far easier for a batsman to adjust down than up. When we go to the sub-continent, the ball is turning more, sure, but the bounce is lower. South Africa's a bit like here, but when everybody else comes here they have to adjust upwards. (to MA) Do you want to know why you got out in Brisbane?

MA: I like talking to old players. I hate it when they come and impose.

IC: Do you want to know why you got out in Brisbane or not?

MA: (after pause) Go on.

A demonstration follows of how to hook downwards and through square-leg, again startling diners in mid-squid.

SB: What's wrong with England's catching?

MA: Fielding's the core of the game, but I think you've got to accept that you are going to drop one in the slips now and then.

AF: At long-on in the game against Victoria all I kept thinking about was Ian Healy and that catch in Brisbane. (He cups shaking hands and repeats 'Ian Healy, Ian Healy'.)

MA: Practice, practice.

IC: It's not just practice. If I was catching well, I needed two minutes before the start. It's the same as batting. You only need a long net when things are going wrong. If you keep on practising you get. . .

MA: Lazy.

IC: Exactly. But you've got to look at footwork as well. Hicky's got terrific hands but when he grasses one it's usually because of his footwork - it's as important in slip-catching as it is in batting.

SB: Why hasn't the England tail made any runs since Angus was dropped? What happened to England's coaching theory that every batsman would have a bowler to look after?

AF: (indignantly to MA) You sacked me after one net!

MA: You were out six times in the first session. What a lost cause! You couldn't even keep your eyes level.

PR: How does the South African tail make so many runs? Their selectors pick Donald and Pollock and pack the rest of their side with all-rounders.

The discussion continues through a little more wine and various subjects, including Bodyline, Fraser's bowling (not to be confused with Bodyline), Warne's drift from leg, and England's other deficiencies, until:

IC: You've got no chance of fixing a problem until you admit you've got one. Australia made that admission in the mid-Eighties, and to me England never have. You just make band-aid solutions.

SB: If two divisions don't work, we can try three, or four.

AF: When we win back the Ashes, we'll come knocking on your door and take you out in your wheelchair.

IC: Mate, you won't have to come hunting. I'll be straight over to buy you one.

Source :: Electronic Telegraph (