From virtual to actual Test match reality

AUSTRALIA'S wafer-thin, two-run loss to England in the Edgbaston Test and its subsequent poor showing in the Old Trafford nexus has forced Ponting's antipodean Ashes seekers on to the back foot — out of the realm of Virtual International Cricket Reality, and into that of Actual Reality. Australia is no longer the big unchallengeable bully of the international game. Nor is it regarded as the cloned re-incarnation of Don Bradman's 1948 `Invincibles'. In Birmingham and Manchester Vaughan's side demonstrated beyond doubt that the `Dominators' from Down Under can themselves be dominated.

For once, the triumphalist Aussie Press has been compelled to turn down the volume of its crowing. The column inches devoted to Australian cricket supremacy in the metropolitan Aussie newspapers have shrunk and the over-the-top euphemism of the antipodean electronic media has been toned down to the level of the realistic.

How and why has this reversal of form come about? Coach John Buchanan's boys still observe the methodical and basic precepts, which underscored their previous successes — and made them number one in the world-ratings in both the One-Day Internationals and the Test competitions. Buchanan's researchers still forage out the strengths and weaknesses of opponents and the areas in which Australia's own game can be improved. Demanding fitness regimes are still part and parcel of Aussie practice sessions and the psychological aspect of match preparations are continued in the team forum — and widely publicised in the press. Game plans are inflexibly followed — more's the pity — and game-sense training acts out the cameo match scenarios, which Ponting's players may encounter in the middle. Theoretical plans and high-falutin' goals, however, are not worth a cracker without the practical means of bringing them to realisation. The England opener, Trescothick's fallibility against the full-length ball moving away to the slips would remain unexploited without a McGrath to pitch the ball in the required spot and find the edge five times out of six. When stripped down to fundamentals, cricket is 80% a skill game. A bowler may be match-fit and psychologically prepared — but if he does not command the bowling skills of length, line, pace, flight, swing, cut, spin and variation — the supernumerary physical and mental attributes of his game will count for little. Essentially a bowler must be able to bowl!

The current Ashes series in England, in my opinion, has emphasised the decisive influence, which skill — or its absence — has played in the three games so far concluded. The major talents of McGrath, Lee, Flintoff and Pietersen have dominated the fortunes of their teams. Would Australia have coasted to its comfortable victory at Lord's, without the metronomic length, line and off-cut of Glenn McGrath? Conversely would England have won in Birmingham by the proverbial skin of its teeth — without the steadying influence of Trescothick, the dynamic straight hitting and aggressive pace bowling of `Freddie' Flintoff, and the adopted South African enterprise of Pietersen? Would Australia have come remotely as close to winning as they did without the mesmerising spin of Shane Warne — the one bowler Flintoff hesitated to hit — and the runs and wickets of Brett Lee? In Manchester it was the turn of the England skipper Vaughan and his 166 — a score which was aided and abetted by an uncharacteristic attack of the fumbles from Aussie 'keeper, Gilchrist, and his fellow fielders.

While cricket victory in the highest echelons often revolves around the success of its stars, many of its mundane but essential tasks are performed by its unsung heroes: the men who make the game a team effort. They score minor but crucial runs, take vital wickets, catch safely, engineer run-outs, which turn the game, and save the runs in the field, which spell the difference — winning and losing. But with uniform and improved training methods now being widely adopted by most teams at first-class and international levels, I ask myself whether the margins of competency in many of the game's collective skills are narrowing. How much further can we go in the peripheral areas of elite team preparation? How much more physical and mental conditioning, game planning, and social bonding etc., can coaches develop? Has such training become so mechanically uniform in the world of top-class cricket that, without relaxation and variations in the players' program, boredom and staleness set in, leading to the dilution of concentration and a diminution of the skill level?

I often feel that Test teams, who aspire to greatness, should be focussing more than they do on the polishing and perfection of outstanding individual talents and condensed one-to-one instruction from the scientific gurus of the sport. Cricket at its highest level should be played between gifted players whose talents are honed to as close to perfection as possible.

The production of such men is dependent on a balanced allocation of time to individual and collective skills. It will not be an easy task, since the adoption of unorthodox batting and bowling methods dear to the heart of limited-over cricket, is leading the game ever increasingly into agricultural fields — rather than biomechanical laboratories.

But in the near future, only techniques, which are close to perfection, will win Tests. Or will human fallibility have something to say about that?