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Shaky Australians ignore England A

Peter Roebuck

27 October 1996

Peter Roebuck in Sydney finds the hosts' minds on other matters, with Warne's injury causing concern

DEAFENING silence greeted the arrival in Australia of the England A team last week. Not since Mr John Stonehouse slipped somewhat stealthily into town has the visit of a distinguished party from England been so thinly reviewed.

Not a murmur was heard on radio, not a word was written in the newspapers, not a whisper on television and no one at the airport to burst into a chorus of ``The Poms are coming''.

Not for the first time the Australians are concentrating on their own affairs. Appalled to find themselves beaten by some little Scandinavian country in a recent election at the United Nations, they have sought solace in the performances of their various champions among rugby players and race horses.

After all, it is the time of the great races in Australia, culminating in the Melbourne Cup itself. Oddly, Australian nags run around twice a week whereas local cricketers bat about once a month. In England, of course, the position is reversed.

David Campese's 100th Test for the Wallabies was closely followed. Everyone in Australia loves Campo except those who have met him, and his entry upon the ground in Italy was eagerly awaited. Unfortunately the local director decided to send his stations to an advertisement for parmesan cheese at the very moment the Australians emerged, a decision which was not universally acclaimed Down Under.

Not even a team coached by Mike Gatting - the Australians are surprised he isn't playing - could supplant such events from the back pages. Among cricketers, only Shane Warne could survive in that company.

Warne's struggles are becoming part of Australia's daily diet. Last week he bowled 18 overs for St Kilda, his club in Melbourne, taking one wicket, and four times being carted over the boundary by an obscure tailender. Nor could Warne summon a riposte, a sharp leg-break to put his rude opponent in his place.

During his spell, Warne left the field to ice his finger and, upon returning, he bowled some gentle deliveries from the front of his hand. Colleagues say his spinning finger is twice the size of its neighbours.

Doubts have been raised about the wisdom of allowing surgeons into the precious digit. Kerry O'Keeffe and David Hourn, two of the most distinguished wrist-spinners to play in Australia in the last 30 years, have recalled suffering precisely the same injury in the same knuckle and surviving to play for years with the help of cortisone injections calculated to break up the calcification on the bone.

O'Keeffe said: ``It's wear and tear. It doesn't happen when you are 18.'' Cortisone allowed him to bowl for a further six summers, and he pronounced himself stunned to hear that Warne had undertaken surgery. Hourn's knuckle started hurting at 23 and ``it felt like I was bowling with a broken finger''. After considering retirement, he tried cortisone and ``never felt another twinge''.

An impression grows that the Australian authorities are not taking into account the health and fitness of their players

Doubtless Warne was given the best advice. He is playing for Victoria today and, for the first time this season, intends to ``give it a flick''. Painkillers have been prescribed and he will also use them in the Test series against the West Indies. Even so, as one colleague put it, ``he won't be able to bowl his zooter''. Not a phrase, it is thought, often uttered by Plum Warner. Meanwhile every spinner in Australia is practising hard.

Inevitably Australia's defeats in India have added insult to injury. John Benaud, Richie's brother and Test cricketer and selector in his own right, has said that the board should ``hang its head in shame'' for arranging so disgraceful and untimely a tour, a solitary Test, lots of 50-over matches and then a hastening home to face the West Indies without further preparation.

An impression grows that the Australian authorities are not taking into account the health and fitness of their players. Moreover the Australian team appears to be standing still, particularly in one-day cricket.

Nine years have passed since their push-and-run tactics brought victory in the World Cup. Much has happened in the intervening years. Five winters ago New Zealand dared to execute a fresh manoeuvre, asking: ``Why not send someone out to give it a go?'' Whereupon the Australians were upset in Auckland and never recovered their equanimity.

Last winter the unsuspected Sri Lankans went further, asking: ``Why not send out two tailenders to give it a go?'' No discouraging answer was heard and the Sri Lankans promptly terrified their opponents and transformed themselves and the careers of two players who might otherwise have passed quietly by. And still the Australians play push-and-run.

They might listen to the words of the great Sumo wrestler, Yokozuma, who said his unparalleled success was due to his ``constant desire to improve''. The Australians are still strong but they are not feared because they do not attempt the extraordinary.

Only Steve Waugh has escaped censure. Indeed, some critics think he should be captain. His counsel, competitiveness and understanding of the game are little used. He is a formidable opponent.

Otherwise the Australians are shaky. Their consternation at Warne's injury suggests that Shield and Grade are no stronger than they were 20 or 30 years ago, while the Academy is merely a finishing school (not that it has any higher pretension).

It can be taken that the Australian system is not as invulnerable as had been supposed. They cannot find a spinner to assist, let alone replace, Warne. And Warne has never been quite as effective on his own.

It is the manifest duty of the England A team to prey upon these doubts. Blimey, the Australians will be thinking, if we can't beat a bunch of Poms we really are in trouble.

England's A team net practice was cancelled at the Sydney Cricket Ground yesterday because of rain. England, whose first match is against a New South Wales side on Thursday, were restricted to a fielding session.

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Date-stamped : 25 Feb1998 - 15:31