Australia has fate and luck on its side

TED CORBETT

Brett Lee, who bagged five wickets for 41 runs, was named the Man of the Match in the second game.-AP

WHAT happened to England in the 72 hours between their easy victory in the first NatWest Challenge match and the second which Australia won just as easily and the third, another 48 hours on, which Australia won with 15 overs to spare? Frankly, it does not make sense.

What is more several of the former cricketers in the media seemed to expect the defeats. A cricketer's instinct I suspect.

You can argue that England had all the luck in the first game and that, as soon as Australia got fate on their side, as they did in the second game at Lord's, they were bound to win.

You can make a case for saying that under the new substitutes rule the side which wins the toss has all the advantages. It enables the lucky captain to put his opponents in and bring in a fresh batsman — who has not had to do any of the running around in the field or the bowling — as back-up.

You can argue that the Australians' pride as world champions was stung by the first defeat and that they came roaring back just in time to make a strong case for their position as favourites for the Ashes battle ahead. I'm afraid that does not make any sense either.

At Leeds Michael Vaughan, the England captain, won the toss and that settled the result for although the England seam attack hardly covered themselves in glory as they bowled Australia out for 219 on a seaming pitch the Aussie pace bowlers were worse. Particularly poor Jason `Dizzie' Gillespie who could hardly put the ball in the right half of the pitch much produce his normal accuracy which includes dropping the ball on an old farthing.

Gillespie has been at least fifty per cent of the partnership with Glenn McGrath, Australia's leading fast bowler for the last decade. Despite injuries and a variety of hair styles Gillespie has been more than McGrath's No. 2. He has taken wickets, he has tied the batsmen down and he appeared to be tireless.

So his form has been crucial at the start of this tour. Crucial because it has been almost absent without leave. His only wicket against England until the final match of the Challenge was that of Chris Tremlett, who has never been suspected to offering a challenge to Gower, Gavaskar and Greenidge, on the cover boundary. Hardly the place a fast bowler wants to take wickets, is it?

By the end of the second match Gillespie's figures read one for 252 and I doubt if he e-mailed his pals to tell them.

At the start of the third match, he let one ball slip under his body and dropped a catch — you could almost see him thinking, as the ball headed his way "in my present state of mind I'm not going to catch this" — off Vaughan that might have been standard fare in any club game.

The crowd got on his back to such an extent that his team-mates rushed over to him at the end of the over and told him — if I am any judge of the way these things go — that he was still a valued member of the side, that he was still on their Christmas card list and to forget the horrible things being shouted.

And please would he bowl out a few of the Poms as soon as possible because, for all he was bowling beautifully at the time, McGrath was not having any success at all. Although that was, in part, because the fielder at fine leg had just dropped a catch.

Whatever his team-mates said or did — the crowd loved it of course and gave Gillespie even more abuse of the "Ahhhhhhhh" and "There diddums drop a teeny weeny catch, you poor thing" type — it worked.

Bowling from the pavilion end at the Oval — and for the first time in these interminable one-day games actually bouncing to the wicket — Gillespie destroyed the much-praised England middle order.

Once again, I am sorry to say, the dismissal of Paul Collingwood, caught off a sloppy shot at cover by Andrew Symonds was hardly one you would want to have as a memento to your skill as a new ball bowler. Nor was the removal of Geraint Jones, picked up on the third man boundary from an upper cut. But they were wickets which had been in short supply during the Gillespie trip and when he saw Kevin Pietersen moving legside to try for big runs through the covers he managed to adjust his line and bowl the most dangerous man in the England line-up.

Thus Gillespie finished with three for 44 and while that is not a Wisden-thumbing analysis I bet it gave the man with the Dennis Lillee headband a good night's sleep for the first time in a while.

I suspect Ricky Ponting slept well in London too at a time when the death of many innocent people, riding the tube and the bus to work in the morning, meant that it was not difficult to lie awake at night and wonder where the terrorists might strike next.

Ponting was warned by Steve Waugh when he took over the captaincy that his main focus should be his own batting and there must have been times in the last month when he wondered if he was ever going to get that right.

But at Lord's and the Oval the old authority returned. Ponting's batting is not a thing of beauty but when he is playing well there is a presence, a commanding look that means he hurts the fielding side with every run.

His century at Lord's where he ensured that Australia got home against the moderate total of 223 in some style and his 40, a back-up to the first show of strength from Adam Gilchrist whose century came off only 81 balls, means that he will go into the first Test feeling good about himself.

It also means that Gilchrist, Ponting and Damien Martyn, the batsmen who must produce the bulk of the runs for Australia in the Test series are all in form and that only the introvert Matthew Hayden needs runs.

Hayden missed the game at Lord's with a sore shoulder but at Leeds and the Oval he had a careworn look that is worrying for those of us who remember his bullying, busy scores of a couple of years ago.

When he made his world record against Zimbabwe's third team his stock stood so high that there were critics who thought of him as the best opener in the game. I would have admired him more if, rather than take the record from a bunch of no-hopers, he had got out one short of Brian Lara's 375.

I was never more pleased than the day Lara took back his record with 400 against bowlers with experience, talent and consistent results behind them.

As for England, their hopes of Ashes success, based on a long string of victories under the captaincy of Vaughan and the coaching skills of Duncan Fletcher, have been dimmed by this unnecessary series.

Dickie Bird, the old umpire turned soothsayer, reminded us at Leeds that once upon a time Test matches were special because they came round so rarely. Now they turned up between 12 and 15 times a year while one-day matches will soon have to be renamed three-times-a-week matches since, as we were reminded at the Oval when Australia played their 600th one-dayer, they are all too frequent.

ICC may tinker with the rules and regulations but the two most discussed changes of recent times — substitutes and the new ways of dividing up the overs with fielding restrictions — have been shown to be pointless in the first ten days of their ten month trial. Why it was considered right to make these alterations I will never know.

Everywhere in the world crowds flock to see these matches. In this country Australia against Bangladesh in a dead rubber fetched in a decent number of spectators to Canterbury. How people love these games because they combine the best of the bang, crash, wallop of 20/20 and elements of the more intellectually based Tests.

You want thrills go for the 20/20. You want to study tactics, technique and talent settle for a Test.

But, 35 years since Geoff Boycott and John Edrich began the England innings at Melbourne in the first one-day international, they have become in many ways the best part of cricket.

They don't need adjustments, alterations and amendments. The 50-over format shows all the parts of cricket any father can use to demonstrate its virtues to his sons and daughters.

Leave the one-day game alone, I say. The scores 3rd match:

England 228 for seven in 50 overs (Strauss 36, Pietersen 74, Solanki 53 not out, Giles 25 not out, Gillespie three for 44) lost to Australia 229 for two in 34.5 overs (Gilchrist 121 not out, Hayden 31, Ponting 43).

2nd match:

England 223 for eight in 50 overs (Flintoff 87, Collingwood 34, Geraint Jones 27, Lee five for 41) lost to Australia 224 for three in 44.2 overs (Gilchrist 29, Katich 30, Ponting 111, Martyn 39 not out).

1st match:

Australia 219 for seven in 50 overs (Gilchrist 42, Martyn 43, Hussey 46 not out, Collingwood four for 34) lost to England 221 for one in 46 overs (Trescothick 104 not out, Strauss 41, Vaughan 59 not out).