England: inventors turned languishers, 1994

Why we beat the Poms

Why do Australia beat England? In general, because Australia play an aggressive brand of cricket and, when the talent is there, they get in position to seek victory more often.

Notwithstanding that, Australia couldn't have lost the last three Ashes series even if they had bet heavily on the opposition. England played badly, often. In particular, the bowling was abysmal.

During the summer of 1993 I constantly heard the lament, What is wrong with English cricket? In part, the answer is the inability of people directing the English game to recognise the good that there is. For instance, one of the more common moans was Where are all the England fast bowlers? Answer: Devon Malcolm was playing for Derbyshire for the first five Tests. Or What has happened to the old-fashioned English seamer? Answer: Steve Watkin was playing for Glamorgan for the first five Tests. Or Why were England 4-0 down after five Tests? Answer: From the time of the second one-day international when, as captain, Graham Gooch froze like a rabbit caught in the headlights, it was obvious he wasn't the man to lead England to an Ashes victory.

England's ability to over-theorise and complicate the game of cricket is legendary. Ever since I became involved in Ashes battles, I've felt that Australia could rely on some assistance from the England selectors. In 1993 they ran truer to form than many of the players they picked. Their magnanimity gave Australia a four-game start before the penny dropped. They then promoted Mike Atherton to the captaincy and, in no time, England picked a reasonably well-balanced side with an attack that bore some semblance of hostility.

Atherton had one piece of good fortune which every captain needs to be successful. Angus Fraser chose the appropriate moment to return to full form and fitness. But even before that Atherton had displayed considerable cricket wisdom. He said at Edgbaston after only three days in the job: Our most important task is to identify the talent to win games. Then we must be prepared to stick with them. He was as good as his word in helping to select the touring party for the Caribbean and in addition he cleverly used his new-found power to make important adjustments to the balance of the side.

Until the advent of Atherton, England's selections had often lacked rhyme or reason. A classic case was the predicament of 21-year-old Mark Lathwell in the one-day international series. At Lord's, Australia had an unbeatable 2-0 lead, so the selectors took the Opportunity to play their talented 21-year-old, Damien Martyn. As he made mincemeat of the bowling on his way to a glorious half-century, an MCC member said to me, How come you Australians always produce good young batsmen? With Lathwell needlessly sitting in the pavilion watching his third match in a row, the answer wasn't difficult. We play them, I replied.

Maybe Atherton doesn't need assistants like Keith, Fletcher. The England cricket manager seems typical of a mentality that pervades county cricket--if it is difficult, take the easy way out. Fletcher's illogical call during the Ashes series for groundsmen to help England by producing seaming pitches went as it should have done: unheeded. However, Fletcher's behaviour should have caught the attention of officials and received a reprimand.

Not only was the suggestion unfair, his reasoning was astray. This was proved at The Oval where a well-balanced side, capably led and playing good, aggressive cricket, beat Australia on one of the best cricket wickets I've seen in England. There was pace and bounce in Harry Brind's pitch (as usual) and it produced the best match of the series. If the counties followed the examples of Brind and Old Trafford's Peter Marron and, where possible, produced similar pitches, then England's good cricketers would benefit substantially at international level. Unfortunately, the county mentality is often similar to Fletcher's: pitches are prepared either to assist the home side or to blunt a strength in the opposition.

Fletcher incorrectly suggested that England is the only country where helping the home side with pitch preparation is not accepted practice. I haven't played on or seen any green-top fliers in the Caribbean, and my brother Greg has often said: If you have to bat against four West Indies pace bowlers then the best place to do it is on their own turf.

And in more than thirty years of playing and watching cricket in Australia, I can honestly say that I've never seen a Test pitch that varies greatly from its behaviour during the Sheffield Shield season. In fact, one of the strengths of the Shield competition is that the players perform on pitches which are very close to Test standard. Under this system it's easy to identify the players who stand a chance at Test level, the ones who are capable of playing only first-class cricket and those who will soon return to club cricket.

When Australia hit rock bottom through the 1984-87 period, the standard of Sheffield Shield cricket was low. The problem was addressed because talented and gutsy young players were encouraged. Now it is a vibrant competition and an excellent breeding ground. England are on the right track with four-day first-class games, but it will take time for the benefits to accrue. I think they should go a step further and reduce the number of teams to make it more competitive, as there are players in the county structure who are not up to first-class standard. Any system that protects incompetence needs changing. If this means having a first and second division then that could be the way to accommodate part-time players who want to combine business and cricket.

These changes could be part of a package to convince the counties that they must put England's needs at the top of their list, rather than on a level with deciding which colour to paint the pavilion roof.

Any move to improve the structure should be aimed at increasing pride in playing for the national team. Encouragingly, since Atherton has become involved in the selection process, I detect a move back to the feeling that the England team is for English players. If this is the case it's good news: England was in danger of becoming a haven for career cricketers who were unsure of making it in their own country.

Lack of pride manifests itself in a number of ways and in England's case the most serious has been to capitulate in a Test when trouble loomed. Their players used to be the best in the world at extricating themselves from trouble. This generation needs to rediscover that urge. The inability to save Tests must also have something to do with technique and mental strength. In an age where we have more coaches than ever throughout the cricket world, I query how much good they are doing. I believe in good coaching, but I think players are better to have none (i.e. work it out for themselves) than to have bad coaching.

In Australia, I believe the Cricket Academy could be run more effectively by not removing the young players from their home environment. However, many of the players leaving the Academy are mentally tough and primed for first-class cricket. This is exactly what you would expect with Rod Marsh as head coach and there is no doubt it is having a positive effect on the depth of Australian first-class cricket.

Also, apart from a brief period when Australia, like other teams, were bluffed by West Indies into thinking that pace was the almighty weapon, there has been a broadbrush approach to bowling the opposition out. This includes having leg-spinners once again. In the period when they were forgotten in Australia, Bill Tiger O'Reilly was furious. But just as he did in his playing days, O'Reilly saved his most lethal delivery for the old enemy. I can never forgive English cricket, he said, for attempting to kill off leg-spin bowling. O'Reilly thought English captains had no idea how to handle leg-spinners.

This brings me in a roundabout way to uncovered pitches. This is often suggested as a recipe for helping English cricket. I say codswallop. Uncovered pitches at first-class level would encourage the expectancy of easy pickings for the bowlers. Leg-spinners are the antithesis of easy pickings.

Another suggestion is that there is too much one-day cricket. This is codswallop too. If young players are taught properly as they progress in the game, the smarter ones learn to adapt their thinking to all sorts of different pitches, bowlers and playing conditions.

Prior to the 1993-94 season, the Australian Cricket Board gave the selectors power to rest a jaded or slightly injured player from one-day Internationals, while still receiving full pay. This is recognition that Test cricket is the true measuring stick for a player's skill, but also acknowledges the contribution made by one-day cricket to the game's finances and spreading popularity. It could also be a solution to the vexing problem of the right balance in a touring team's itinerary.

The ACB's edict is an interesting development in the gradual evolution of the professional game, in places other than England. Like so many things, the English invented one-day cricket and other countries have improved on their system, leaving them languishing. There are some signs of modern thinking in the marketing of English cricket but it has taken an inordinate amount of time to occur. In the end, though, the marketing men need a strong England side. So does the whole of cricket.

Ian Chappell captained Australia in 30 Test matches between 1971 and 1975, 16 of them against England. He is now a broadcaster and journalist.

© John Wisden & Co