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December 15, 2010
Steve Waugh has praised the togetherness of an England squad that he believes are favourites to secure the Ashes with victory in the third Test at Perth, but says that the time has come for Australia's selectors to identify the men that they believe can return the Test team to winning ways, and then back them through thick and thin - in much the same way that he himself was given time to learn his game in the early years of his own international career.
Though Waugh finished his career with a formidable record of 10927 runs in 168 Test appearances, his early days coincided with the absolute nadir of Australia's fortunes, as he was selected on a whim as a 20-year-old allrounder in December 1985, in a team that had been ravaged by the retirements of three key players in Greg Chappell, Dennis Lillee and Rod Marsh, as well as a raft of defections to a rebel tour of South Africa.
"Allan Border was captain and he'd played more Tests than the rest of the team combined," Waugh recalled. "That's a very inexperienced side, this side has still got some experience and good players. But what the selectors have got to do now, that they did then, was have belief in the younger players that they pick. Say, look, we believe in you, you're the future of Australian cricket, and you're going to have a bit of leeway.
"It's not always going to be successful all days, and I guess I was the perfect example," he added. "I didn't score a hundred until my 26th Test, I never won a Test until my 13th Test for Australia, so you've got to see the bigger picture. You can't just chop and change, if someone fails in one Test and doesn't look the goods, you've got to give them an opportunity."
With that in mind, Waugh was especially critical of the treatment meted out to the left-arm spinner Xavier Doherty, who has been jettisoned from the squad after just two Test appearances, in favour of Western Australia's Michael Beer. "We've been going through a lot of players," he said, "but you don't just chop and change for the sake of it.
"It's a great honour to play for your country, and I feel disappointed for someone like Doherty who's played two Tests and now he's gone. I think you pick a player, believe in them, and give them a good opportunity, and you don't change that side unless you believe you can improve the side by getting another player in."
Speaking at the MCC World Cricket Committee meeting in Perth, Waugh believed that Australia's spirit in adversity would give them a fighting chance in the forthcoming contest, but backed England's greater cohesion to hold sway - an upshot, he added, that would heap huge pressure on Ricky Ponting's tenure as Australia's captain.
"Ricky acknowledged [the pressure] at the start of the series," said Waugh. "He would be thinking he can turn it around because that's always been the case for Australian sides that I've played in, but questions will be asked for sure if they lose this series. It's unlikely, looking at form, that they can turn this around, but anything can happen in sport, particularly on this unique wicket which is like no other pitch in the world. It's only 1-0 down in the five-Test series, and the great uncertainty is what keeps us coming back."
England, however, have looked a formidable unit in the series to date, and Waugh - who has never been shy of stating his opinion on previous Ashes squads - believes that the influence of Andy Flower has been instrumental in moulding an outfit that is becoming the team best placed to inherit Australia's mantle as the world's No. 1 side.
"They've impressed me for a couple of years," he said. "I noticed the turnaround when England drew three Test matches having lost nine wickets in the fourth innings [at Cardiff, Centurion and Cape Town]. That showed to me a side that was together. Sides that aren't strong don't survive those sorts of matches.
"That was a turning point for English cricket," he added. "They look like they enjoy each other's company, they are playing for each other, and they've prepared very well. I like the fact that Flower is their coach, behind the scenes and low-key. They look like they all know their roles and they are playing some good cricket.
"All great eras have to come to an end," he added. "I guess we modelled a bit of our cricket on the great West Indies era, because if you're smart you look at the best and what they are doing, and look at their blueprint, and modify it to suit your needs. I think you can see England have done that with their cricket. They've looked at how we've been successful, altered it to suit their players, and now they're playing their own style."
The net result is an Australian side with no choice but to go for broke in a bid to avoid their first home Ashes defeat in 24 years. "What option have they got?" said Waugh. "They were totally outplayed on a flat pitch at Adelaide. You've got to say England were dominant and that will have hurt the Australian side, particularly Ricky. They'll give everything they've got in this Test, and I expect them to really firing up on the first morning, being really positive in their body language, and with a couple of younger players so I expect to see more energy in the field.
"It's a huge Test, and it's going to be on," he added. "The WACA is a great place to watch and play Test cricket, the quicks can get it through, it's exciting, and more than likely it's a place where players can get injured if they are not switched on. It's going to be a bit of a battlefield out there."
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