Champs don't come along everyday

RICHIE BENAUD is the Golden Tonsils of cricket telecasting. But if he is to fulfill his self-declared ambition for the next four years he will have to add to his already considerable eloquence, the silver tongue of a second Cicero come to judgment. For the rumour mills around the Sydney Test scene have it that the snowy-crested Benaud has set himself the goal of persuading Shane Warne, Australia's apparently everlasting "Wiz of Fizz", to stick by Rick Ponting's victorious Aussie side until at least the next Ashes tour of England in 2009. Richie's persuasive job will be a big ask — just marginally less difficult than Hercules' reining in of the Cretan Bull. For Oz's Sheikh of Spin has already spread his talents very thin over his immediate future — having committed to winning back and retaining the Ashes. In addition, a glutton for more and more cricket, he has hitched his wagon as leg-spinner and captain to the hopefully rising star of Hampshire on the English county circuit.

Warne's thickening waistline and his stiffening spinning fingers will test his ability to maintain his present onerous playing load. He has already abandoned the duress of One-Day Internationals. Warne's weariness may stretch Benaud's powers of inducement to their limit. But the former Aussie captain is a pragmatist and he knows full well that maintaining Australia's enviable Test fortunes is inextricably tied to the continuing successes of Warne and Glenn McGrath. I support Benaud's hypothesis and would go so far as to say that to find the "X factor" which has consistently elevated Australia above Test rivals such as India, South Africa, the West Indies, Pakistan and even England — one has to search no further than the western country areas of New South Wales and suburban St. Kilda.

Crucially, it will be almost impossible to find replacements for the relentless metronomic paceman and the wrist-spinning genius. How does one find an adequate substitute for a fast — medium paceman who is rated number 2 in the ranks of Test bowlers and has more than 520 international wickets to his credit? And can one ever make good the loss of a non-pareil leg-spinner whom the statisticians of Wisden — cricket's Bible — place at number 3 in the world and who has claimed a record 657 victims? The future inevitable loss or retirement of Warne and McGrath must bring the previously rampant "Cornstalks" back to the international pack. Nor does any form of salvation seem to be forthcoming from the direction of the Australian Cricket Academy, where the departure of director, Rod Marsh, has reduced the flow of talent from the Adelaide Oval — and latterly Brisbane's Allan Border Field — to a mere trickle. All of this does not mean that once Australia's batting opponents have escaped the attentions of McGrath and Warne, they will be the untrammeled free agents of their own future success. From cricket's earliest days on the planet's driest continent, the game has always been able to whistle up a quorum of muscular young fast bowlers with enough pace, swing and skill to discomfit the best of batsmen. McGrath's withdrawal from the Test arena, for instance, could be partially compensated by the recruitment of Nathan Bracken: a left-handed over-the-wicket medium to fast out-slanting bowler who has the capacity to vary his stock ball with a late-dipping inswinger of surprising speed and movement. The right- handed Matt Nicholson, formerly of Western Australia and now of New South Wales, has a low front arm but still has enough speed to command the respect of his peers, who, almost universally, have dubbed him one of the most talented players not to win a regular Test place — not a surprising accolade for a speedster who in 2004 headed the Pura Cup averages with a tally of 39 wickets. Shaun Tait, South Australia's slingy new-ball bowler is genuinely fast — in the Jeff Thomson mould — and finished with 33 wickets in the 2004 Pura Cup competition: enough to win him a baggy green cap and a couple of Tests in the Ashes series in England just past. Injury has hamstrung his development. But he will return — and it would not be an exaggeration to say that most Test sides would welcome a bowler of his aggression and pace as a regular member of their side. Victoria's Mick Lewis is a fast-medium journeyman of the highest class: a fact borne out by his 34-wicket bag in last season's domestic season in Australia. In Queensland Andy Bichel continually attracts the attention of the selectors by his consistent wicket-taking and waving the flag of fruitful experience. He is supported by the youthful promise and lightning pace of the lofty Mitchel Johnson; while in Sydney Stuart Clark showed enough aggression for the light blues to warrant a call-up as a stand-by for the senior Aussie side.

In the spin department, the cupboard is much barer. Off-spinner Nathan Hauritz is still on the scene in Queensland — but with just a single Test to his credit in 2004. Too premature a promotion has done little to further his cause and he now finds it difficult to pick-up club wickets and even harder to add to his tally of state victims — his 16 first-class wickets in season 2003/04 cost him 63 runs apiece. Far more promising is South Australian finger spinner, Dan Cullen, who is reputed to give the ball a real tweak and has away drift in the vein of his Adelaide predecessor Tim May. But the greatest expectations of a possible replacement for Shane Warne are reserved for the youthful Victorian skipper, Cameron White and "Warney's" current "alter ego" Stuart MacGill.

Richie Benaud's high hopes for White, an all-rounder from country Gippsland, who has already toured with the Australian side, are tempered by the observation that he bowls too much like the broadcaster himself did in his hey-day — with too much top rather than side spin. By this he means that the Bairnsdale man releases the ball when his bowling arm is either at or past the vertical, imparting top and forward rather than side spin. My view deals with the result of this top spin: namely that White is too flat and fast through the air and fails to trouble the batsmen with either flight or sideways movement off the wicket. One thing is certain: White rarely spins the ball past the outside edge of the bat, has far fewer variations than the regulation leg-spinner and is far from another Shane Warne in the making. The great Surrey side of the 50s in English county cricket owed much of its strength to the talents of its reserves: players could more than adequately replace Test players like Bedser, Laker, Lock and May when they were absent on international duty. If I apply this touchstone of greatness to the current Aussie side I am more than comfortable with the possible batting substitutes for Hayden, Langer, Ponting or any of the top order of the Aussie batting line-up. I would not have a moment's anxiety about any of Mike Hussey, Simon Katich, Michael Clarke, Brad Hodge or Andrew Symonds stepping up to the plate to pinch hit for them. They are all fine players. I would have a few serious qualms about Australia being able to replace McGrath. But I am of the opinion that the Australian selectors will never be able to find a bowler to compensate for the loss of Warne. He is the one player of whom one can say without fear of contradiction that "One bowling swallow can make a happy and victorious summer."