Key lacks Test savvy

TED CORBETT

NOVEMBER 18: I've told everyone else so I may as well tell you that I have a feverish cold; which causes me to sit in front of the television for three days watching the action from Hobart where England draw with Australia 'A'; and where Robert Key, a bulldog of a batsman, bats all the third day for his top first class score of 174 not out. The junior Australian side enforce the follow-on and with three England batsmen gone by the end of the second day it looks certain that England will lose only three days before the start of the Adelaide Test. Key and John Crawley, batting defensively, are not parted until tea when Crawley is forced to retire with a bruised nerve in his hip, a self-inflicted wound from his own hook shot. Now, and here is the delicious irony, Key may get into the side if Crawley is unfit. Maybe England turn the corner; or the fever is causing my mind to wander. Actually, it wanders to good effect. The headline writers love Key: opening the door, slamming it shut, oh the delights. But isn't it a pity that he misses out on two natural accomplices: Tony Lock, the great left arm spinner and Brian Close, the England captain. Key, Lock and Close; the combination might make even the tabloid's finest reach for the headache pills.

November 19: Off the field Glenn McGrath is a lovely man, charming, soft-spoken and intelligent; nothing like the foul-mouthed villain who berates batsmen immediately after he fires the ball past their noses out in the middle. So it is no surprise that when his wife discovers she has cancer he is supportive, kind and decent. "What else would a man do?" this thoroughly modern 21st century husband asks rhetorically during a Channel Nine interview with her sitting alongside him. They make an ideal couple, clearly enormously fond of one another, ideal soul mates even though his job takes him away from home many days of the year which, as several England players have found in the past few years often lead to the divorce court. The McGrath example is dutifully followed by the Hussain family where Nasser and Karen are now parents to both Joseph and Joel, grandsons to Joe once of Madras. In recent days Mrs. McGrath has more surgery to correct the problems caused by her illness. She admits during the interview that when they first meet she has no idea he is what Channel Nine insist is "the best bowler in the world." Is he? Better than Shane Warne, or Muttiah Muralitharan? The best fast bowler in the world? I might go with that even after considering the claims of Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis and Shaun Pollock? But one of the least attractive offshoots of the Australian dominance of the last few years is that their fans - and Channel Nine are big, big fans - can see no further than the Australian stars in assessing the cricket world. John Crawley, another softly spoken cricketer, comes under fire from several boys, one no more than 10 years old. "Don't they teach you manners at school" asks Crawley, from the posh Manchester Grammar School and Cambridge University. "No, mate," comes the reply. "But they teach us how to beat you lot at cricket."

November 20: Seven years ago Keith Fletcher, the England coach, returns home after his side lose the Test series and perform miserably in the one-day series, and finds he no longer has a job. Now, what happens if Duncan Fletcher - no relation and totally dissimilar to the affable Keith - loses the Test series by as big a margin and has to watch while Australia and Sri Lanka contest the finals of the world series? The question is already being asked in the corridors of power and with good reason. A few days before the plane carries the party to Australia Fletcher signs a new contract with the England and Wales Cricket Board which makes him the best paid coach in the world and gives him security for two more years. He asks for three years - "to finish the job" - and some board members are heartily in favour. Now all those committeemen face a dilemma. Heavy defeat stares Fletcher in the face. Logically, failure at the same level as Keith Fletcher ought to result in an immediate search for a new man; but that will mean a pay-off totalling 300,000 pounds, at least double the amount which causes fury among the county clubs in 1995. The ECB are not short of the odd million pounds but counties who are counting every penny will want to know the thinking behind Fletcher's big rise on the eve of departure for Australia where victory is always impossible and success may be any defeat short of 5-0.

November 21: John Crawley is declared unfit and Robert Key plays; but who decides he is to bat No. 3 when Mark Butcher goes into a darkened room with a migraine. Surely that is not the duty to inflict on a man in his third Test. Didn't it ought to be the job for Hussain who bats No. 3 in Test and county cricket more often than he can remember. Key is, not surprisingly, very nervous and he is given a number of reminders of the difficulty he faces by those kindly Australians. And he is out for one. Just a little mistake by the management but they all add up. Nasser Hussain has a worry; Joel his second son is a native Australian, aged four days. Asked if the new Aussie has a chance of playing for the country of his birth Steve Waugh shrugs his shoulders. I suspect his allegiances will be strongly pro-England. Vic Marks, once an England offspinner now cricket chairman of Somerset, has another disturbing discovery. There is a plaque on the Adelaide Oval which announces the sad demise of someone called Vic Marks in 2002. "Is there a date by any chance?" asks Marks, exercising all his sense of humour.

November 22: While out in the middle the new England off-spinner Richard Dawson arouses comment by his calm manner - he is only 22 and little more than a year ago he was flat-sharing as a poor student at Exeter University - in the Academy and helping England in the nets is Monty Panesar, a north Indian with a huge potential as a left-arm slow bowler. "Look at that action, just like every other Indian left arm spinner," says one old England bowler. Surely we are watching Harbhajan Singh in a mirror.

November 23: It is good to know that while the England team are making 19 million people so happy in Australia there are devoted fans back home who sit up half the night watching their televisions and emailing their comments to such organisations as Test Match Special. One is the icon of lady scorers Wendy Wimbush, who lets Jon Agnew know that she sits each night scoring every ball bowled "for my records". Another fan of our acquaintance goes all the way to Australia - using her savings from a Test security job in the home summer - for the entire tour while the famed Surrey bookshop owner Eric Budd calls to see us in Adelaide and relay the news that Surrey fans are unhappy at the rise in prices. A full membership costs 250 pounds sterling and a pint of beer - common price even at London prices about 1.50 pounds - is now a staggering 2.50 if you buy it inside the Oval.

November 24: You will understand my point about Australians believing that cricket is played only with an Aussie accent when you hear that Glenn McGrath's catch to dismiss Michael Vaughan on the last day of the second Test was - according to the Channel Nine News - "the greatest outfield catch of all time." Was it indeed? You may remember better catches but I defy anyone to find a finer example than James Kirtley's to get rid of Sourav Ganguly at Lord's last summer. Finally, the definitions that are troubling the Australian nation, according to one Geoff McClure, who writes the Sporting Life column in The Melbourne Age. Define the Ashes? Another Sad Horrific English Series. Define an English hat-trick: Three runs in three balls. Define the work of the English coach: Taking the team from the hotel to the ground and back. I am not a violent man but the dream of an Australian team beaten and humiliated - as they were by India a couple of years ago - is more attractive by the hour. And, sadly, less likely.