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Australia's learning curve leads to peaks

By Simon Hughes

14 February 1997

WHILE England scavenged a few crumbs of Test- match comfort in Wellington, Australia were en route to Johannesburg to challenge for the real spoils: supremacy over South Africa to claim the unofficial title of world champions.

The South Africans have not lost a series to Australia since 1957-58, and the three Tests (the first begins on Feb 28, and they warmed up yesterday by beating a Nicky Oppen- heimer's Invitation XI by 19 runs in their opening match of the tour) are guaranteed to be feisty and explosive. South African hot pepper stirred with Australian rock salt.

The image of the fair dinkum Aussie may have changed from Dennis Lillee macho to Shane Warne maestro, but they still have the toughness to crush any vulnerable object. Witness the West Indies, until the recent series was already won.

England, meanwhile, have been inclined to stumble one pace forward then stagger back two. Now, let's look at the basics for a moment. English and Australians are from the same original stock, live a similar lifestyle, eat the same combination of protein and junk, so why this huge dis- crepancy in performance? The difference is mainly attitude.

The gradients in Australian cricket are steep and have been for some years. It is a vertiginous climb through club cricket divisions to city A grade, then a further haul up to state level. The Test team is the pinnacle for all serious players, but to reach it is to stand on a precipice, precarious- ly perched over a long drop.

Michael Slater's lack of achievement toppled him out of the Australian side and he scored so few runs before Christmas even his position in the New South Wales team was in jeop- ardy. Damien Fleming, who bow led in the World Cup final last March, lost form and has since plunged out of the first-class scene.

These steep inclines keep the Australian players sharp and on guard. Every innings and bowling spell counts. English pros live on a plateau by comparison. Once they have pulled themselves up on to the cushion of county cricket, many, though not all, recline in the satisfaction of having 'made it'. They do not fervently seek the rarified air of excellence except in the last year of their contracts.

The relentless schedule does not help, of course. A jovial, lads-on-tour approach is necessary to survive the end- less travelling, motorway-side hotels and nights in anony- mous town centres, but a more serious attitude is adopted for ap- pearances on stage. Gradually, as the years go by, the direct fo- cus fades and the two mentalities merge. You end up with teams of decent, amiable repertory performers who do not excel at any- thing.

The differences are quickly evident if you experience a match in rural Australia. This month I guested for Wundowie Cricket Club, a farming community in the Darling Ranges of Western Australia, recovering from a recent massive fire. The temperature soars 42, 43, 44, flies irritate, the drinks break is a queue for a rusty tap, the bar is the back of a truck.

During the pie interval there is a scuffle between a veteran batsman and a spiky young stripling accused of fielding less than wholeheartedly. In England, the incident would have incited a committee meeting.

There are no sightscreens or scoreboards, the outfield is bumpy and rutted. Yet the standard of play is high. A stocky man with bristling orange hair and ginger beard strides out.

Bushfire they call him. He deposits each of his first three deliveries over mid-wicket with a resonant thwack. His partner is a crimson faced man called Blood Clot, a beekeeper. He nudges balls into gaps calling for sneaky singles. The bowlers are Big John, a strapping seamer, and Hasty, a crafty leggie.

The batting is aggressive, the bowling miserly, the fielding predatory. Everyone seems to have a throw like a mis- sile launcher. Nobody gets one off the mark, reputations are irrelevant. The game is built on naked commitment. Cricket is the lifeblood of the bush country, a place to test your heart and soul before going back on the farm. It is the source of the Australian river of pride.

Alec Stewart observed recently that England's young cricketers are physically and mentally a couple of years behind those of other countries. In other words they are soft. They are more resilient once they have been shoved through the county mangle for five years, but it bleeds their vitality and enthusiasm.

Proposals to intensify county cricket might arrest the problem in the long term, but toughening our juniors could bring about a more immediate perform ance upgrade.

To this end formation of a central, Australian-style academy is of the utmost urgency - how long does it take to assem- ble a class of the best teenagers and find a public school to house them for the summer holidays? - and appointment of an energetic, authoritative director.

Graham Gooch would be good. He could bring in special- ists to work on specific skills. Then organise decent fixtures against touring sides and counties and we would be getting somewhere. Eventually the academy side could be incorporated in a two-division county championship.

There is ample talent in England to suggest that our time will come again, especially if we can shorten our young players' learning curve. Lord MacLaurin certainly seems con- scious of that. He has already removed the cosy habit of England players sharing rooms on tour. Since his arrival in New Zealand, everyone, not just the seniors, has a single. The more you treat young adults like schoolboys the more they play like ones.

Australian squad: *M A Taylor, M Hayden, G Blewett, J Langer, M E Waugh, S R Waugh, M G Bevan, M Elliot, -I A Healy, S K Warne, P R Reiffel, A Bichel, G D McGrath, J Gillespie.

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Date-stamped : 25 Feb1998 - 15:31