An uphill task for England


AS I write this last column of the present series it is beginning to look as if Steve Waugh - out of form, 37 and looking as careworn as ever - may not lead Australia in the fight for the Ashes this autumn.

It's a pity but the Australian selectors have never - remember the strange departure of Allan Border and the unheralded farewell by Mark Taylor - been sentimental when replacing their captains.

Funnily enough, the England selection panel is inclined to hand the skipper his last good-bye with rather more consideration.

They have allowed, for instance, Nasser Hussain to fly out to Australia early so that his wife can be with him. She is pregnant and it is her last chance to make the trip. So there is an unusual air about this tour Down Under. But what else is new? My own first trip to Australia had a strange beginning.

I was sitting in the head office of my newspaper day-dreaming about the start of the next snooker season - it had been my beat for 15 years and I loved the players, the life and the atmosphere - when the sports editor brushed past me.

"Oh, by the way," he said, clearly having remembered something he should have told me weeks earlier, "if we ask you to be cricket correspondent, you won't turn us down, will you?"

"No one," I said, imitating the philosopher's defining life as it should be lived, "turns down a free trip to Australia." And that is how, 20 years ago, the great adventure began.

In a couple of weeks we will be off again, following Hussain's hopefuls on the 70th anniversary of the Bodyline series. At this distance it seems a task akin to finding the Holy Grail but that is what we thought when we set out in 1982 and again in 1986.

On my first trip Bob Willis led a nondescript bunch. We thought they would be lucky to escape a whitewash. Looking back on that Ashes series I am surprised how near Willis's woebegones came to keeping the old trophy. Despite the absence of the banned rebels like Graham Gooch, John Emburey and Wayne Larkins they lost only 2-1 and might have drawn if an umpire had been fully awake at the start of the final Test.

In 1986 Mike Gatting had Botham, Gower, Emburey, Edmonds and an even more unlikely combination of youth and maturity. No chance at all, the worst team to leave British soil; you know the sort of stuff. We all wrote it.

After the shambles of a match against Western Australia, Martin Johnson - an unlikely choice himself as he was signed up by The Independent as their rugby reporter only a few weeks earlier - was so disgusted that he wrote: "They tell me there are only three things wrong with this team: they can't bat, they can't bowl and they can't field."

Gatt's Can'ts, as they began to call themselves, won the Test series 2-1, the Perth Trophy and the world series, and the phrase entered the books of wise sayings. Compare it with Gatting's frequent application of the word "tremendous" and Hussain's inability to complete a sentence with including the phrase "n'stuff."

Hussain's chances are also rated less than zero. Yes, he has a bunch of triers, under the whiplash of Hussain's withering looks and total enthusiasm they are a cohesive if fearful unit and Duncan Fletcher's coaching has brought out the best in the also-rans.

However, you cannot escape the fact that for all they had home advantage, Michael Vaughan scored runs as if he had an urgent appointment at Buckingham Palace and Alec Stewart grew younger every day, they still only managed a 1-1 draw against India.

Not just that. They made India look like a team about to rush to the top of the Test leaderboard. In spite of everything I have said recently about India's one-day potential further Test glory, particularly away from home, is still a year or two in the distance.

This England side is so seriously deficient in the bowling department that I wonder if they will succeed in bowling Australia out twice in any Test on any pitch.

Darren Gough is injured and possibly unable to play a major role. Not a great spinner in sight. Andrew Caddick, always a moody performer, is drawing towards the end of his career. No Alex Tudor; too often injured, too much of a liability. No Dominic Cork; a mistake in my opinion. No Craig White; still not bowling but scoring runs for a hobby and a great fielder.

There is just one tiny glimmer of hope. His name is James Anderson, aged 20, who bowls as quick as anyone can. There are good men willing to gamble their reputation that one day he will be mentioned alongside Brett Lee and Shane Bond as fast bowlers requiring a batsman to reach for a second helmet.

Hello, you will be saying, Anderson's not even a member of the touring squad. He is however just round the corner. He will be in Adelaide at the Academy which still uses this temporary home until the England and Wales Cricket Board finishes spending their hard-earned pounds on a permanent version somewhat less than 12,000 miles distant.

So if Gough, as some people suggest, fails all his fitness tests it is open to Hussain to phone the Academy in Adelaide and invite Anderson to join the party.

Which leads to the exciting possibility that England might win back the Ashes using a lad under the influence of Rod Marsh, a true Aussie hero if ever there was one. Of course, the glory may fall on the shoulders of Simon Jones, another recruit from the Academy, or Robert Key, who learnt to lose weight under the kindly but occasionally wrathful Marsh.

The best chance lies in the power of the batting and particularly the opening pair of Vaughan and Marcus Trescothick. They have both grown to maturity at just the right moment. Glenn McGrath is beyond his peak, Shane Warne is making an all too obvious attempt to retain his youth by shedding the pounds and, as I said at the start, the Waugh twins, elder statesmen and under the severest examination of their distinguished careers, may both have gone one step beyond their shelf life.

For all Australia's semi-final defeat in the ICC Trophy and Pakistan's brilliant fightback in Colombo, the second Test showed just how powerful a unit they are. For a while a gleam returned to the eyes of those who have suffered in the last few years; then the injured tiger sprang forward for the kill once again.

Still, victory is possible and, the dreamers may think, even poor old England, without the Ashes since 1989, may emerge from the darkness and win again. Wouldn't that be a delicious irony. I bet the Australians would leap up and down with glee at the thought that they had helped England develop in Anderson a new bowler in the line that stretches back to Larwood, Trueman, Willis and Botham and that at long last the Ashes had returned to England, their natural home. Or they might sob into their beer, a sound which brings an Englishman such pleasure that it is impossible to imagine anything more satisfying. I can still remember the delight I had in telling my Australian mates that victory in 1985 and 1986-7 must not be a cause of national mourning.

Then I dived for cover and laughed until I cried!

The possibility of repeating that moment makes me acutely pleased I am returning to Australia for my sixth Ashes tour. As part of my preparations I'm putting this column back into its box and, after a week or two, reaching for the old diary. It has always been the happiest resting place for the odd, the bizarre and the completely wacky that is all part of an Ashes series. After all, it is a country where the most famous animal jumps when it should run, where the start of summer is marked by widespread fires and the capital city is so far off the beaten track that it is almost out of reach. Plenty of material for any diary writer.

In the meantime I have almost convinced myself that neither of the Waugh brothers will be wanted, that the Aussies will have all the bad luck and that England really do have a winning chance.