A matter of grave concern

Shaun Tait will be the ideal back-up for Glenn McGrath and Brett Lee.-AP

Australia's signature tune has been missing in this Ashes series so far and it has not been able to tune its batting to the beat of the English attack.

AUSTRALIA'S brave fight to draw the Old Trafford Test must not be allowed to mask the problems that have existed for sometime. The major concern is of course the deplorable catching of the team. A worry that has existed for nearly five years. Well, at least, that was the time I was alerted to the number of catches being dropped and run outs being missed by a member of the Australian party.

For some years this was covered up by the weakness of the opposition and the quality of the Australian attack. The reason for this decline was attributed to the fact that the amount of time spent at fielding work-outs had been reduced dramatically. By my friend's calculation the Australian team then was spending at least 30 per cent less time than in the previous years. I monitored this myself afterwards and it is certainly still the case.

The old saying "catches win matches" applies even today and with the standard of the bowling attack not as good today, Australia is paying for the missed catches. Of all the arts in cricket, catching perhaps requires the greatest finesse. You can "wing it" to some extent, with bowling and batting, but catching a cricket ball is an art.

The only way you can obtain the very highest level and precision with fielding is to practice under the same pressure as required in a match.

Unfortunately the Australian fielding routines look more like a walk in the park than the intensity, enthusiasm and work effort that is required of a good fielding session. Too often it appears that the Aussies when fielding want to rest on their laurels. I wonder just how fit and committed they now are on the cricket field.

This applies to both the physical and mental demands of spending days in the field whether bowling or batting and maintaining peak concentration in all departments. I have no doubt the Australians are physically fit, but are they cricket fit and mentally attuned to the concentration that is required to survive with bat or ball and not commit the mistakes they are now making.

This was particularly noticeable with the batsmen as many of them were misjudging length and either going back when they should have been forward or playing attacking shots to good length balls. Was there also a misdirected arrogance by most of the batsmen. Against sub-standard teams with ordinary bowling attacks they have been able to bully just about every attack in the world.

Aggression was their signature tune and four runs plus per over was their target. One that they were able to achieve with ease against inferior bowlers. To me it always seemed to be too good to be true and consistent.

History of cricket says it couldn't be achieved always and a good attack would make the Aussies pay for their helter-skelter batting.

Against England this season their signature tune has been off key and so far Australia has not been able to tune its batting to the beat of the English attack.

With modern coaching technology every batsman could view his batting and digest how he has tried to play. A realistic and honest self appraisal would soon reveal the Aussies have been trying to play too many shots to balls that carry risks of dismissal. By all means, stay aggressive, but make it a controlled mental aggression rather than a out of control physical one.

I found the scorecards of the Manchester Test fascinating. In troubled times strike rotation, to deny the bowlers the opportunity of long spells at the same batsmen is of paramount importance.

Strike rotation was very poor in Manchester and the pressure that was allowed to be applied by the Australian batsmen made the English bowlers task that much easier.

The Australian batsmen should look carefully at themselves and pose the question as to why the tail is often staying longer at the crease than them. The answer to my eyes is that the tail-enders are staying within their limitations whereas the batsmen are not. And what of the bowlers. Generally they have not done a good job. They had a nightmare first innings in the Lord's Test, when they allowed over 400 runs to be taken off them in a day.

England also scored over 400 in the Manchester Test, but if the Australians had taken even half of the chances England would have been lucky to have scored 250. Unfortunately while McGrath, Lee and Warne have bowled extremely well, the others have performed poorly.

I would like to ask why the Australian bowlers are delivering so many no balls. Surely the coaching staff are watching out for this at practice. In addition how is it possible for Test bowlers to bowl such balls.

Australia will obviously for the next Test think seriously about who will replace Gillespie. Unfortunately modern tours do not allow enough time or matches for anyone to get back to form.

To me only two bowlers can be considered. MacGill or Shaun Tait. This choice would need to be made according to the pitch. It has been a long time since the Australian selectors gambled on a newcomer but Tait has the pace and fire to unsettle and he would be an ideal back up to McGrath and Lee.

Obviously something has to be done with the batting. I have always felt we had too many stroke makers in the team and what we needed was at least two reliable batsmen who could bat for a day.

Since Steve Waugh retired we haven't had a middle order batsman who could fill this role. Little wonder then we have had so many middle order collapses. Unfortunately Matthew Hayden seems totally confused as to how he should be trying to bat and his scoring at present is done in dribs and drabs and he never appears to have the assurance that is needed to play a long innings.

Damien Martyn has been worked out by the English pacemen and his penchant for playing back to the quicks has made him very susceptible to well pitched up deliveries particularly if they swing. Katich who was an opener seems to be suffering with poor footwork. Like most of the batsmen he too is often looking for the big shots.

After having watched three Tests in England I am yet to fathom as to who is calling the shots. Is it John Buchanan's computer or Ricky Ponting? Either way it is not working.

Let's start with slip position. Why the hell is Ricky and, I should also add Vaughan, persisting with split slips position instead of traditional positions.

The history of the game clearly shows that first slip takes the most catches, second slip the second most and third the third most and so forth. Yet we see both captains splitting their slips positions and they wonder why so many catches go through the slips.

You also have to wonder why third man is seldom used when statistics show 25 to 30 per cent of total runs scored go down that way. Crazy, isn't it? Why is it virtually mandatory for fast bowlers to bowl with a deep fine and square leg and no one between deep square and mid on?

Not enough batsmen are trying to hook with two men deep and why would they when there are so many easy pickings on the on side.

Perhaps all the bowlers should look at the reason why Warne and McGrath take so many balls. Sure they are wonderful bowlers and Shane Warne every now and then bowls a miracle ball. However, the reason for their success is that they pressure the batsmen with good old line and length into making mistakes.

All pretty simple provided the bowlers have the accuracy to bowl each ball where they want and the patience to do it long enough to force the batsmen into errors.

What do the Australians have to do to lift their game? Be honest enough to admit they haven't done enough to deserve victory and be prepared to give their all in every ball of the match.