Player power and game plans

FRANK TYSON

Duncan Fletcher... spearheading the England Brains Trust.-AP

THE BBC's Brains Trust of the post-war years relied on the grey matter of men like — "it all depends on what you mean by... " Professor Joad and Commander Campbell. Now in its hour of cricketing need, England has called upon a new sporting Brains Trust — behind which we find the combined intelligences of coach Duncan Fletcher, captain Michael Vaughan, and the computerised expertise of Tim Boon. And they appear to have come up with a winning blueprint which has steered English cricket back to its victorious ways!

The concept of thoroughly researched game plans is not new. John Buchanan's team of cricketing boffins have been following one for years. Now it appears that they have been hoist on their own petard. Out-researching Australia's researchers, England's egg-heads have identified opener Hayden's compulsive addiction to going to meet the ball hard and driving catches to short cover and straight mid-off. Langer's nudges have led to his being caught at short-leg three times in the current Ashes series; and the propensity of Ponting to lunge at the ball prematurely and fall across his stumps as he does, has led to his nicking catches to the wicket-keeper or being dismissed lbw. Damien Martyn has been revealed as a correct technician, but a slow learner. In the Sydney Test of 1993-94 against South Africa his dismissal, caught at square cover, precipitated an Aussie batting collapse which lost a game which was all but won. Michael Clarke loves driving on the up and consequently often pays the piper for this affection. Wandering across his stumps as the ball is bowled has cramped Simon Katich's ability to counter the delivery pitching outside his off-stump — especially when it is bowled around the wicket by the home-team's reverse-swinging expert, `Freddie' Flintoff. Adam Gilchrist must have the free movement of his arms and room to play his shots wide of the stumps. `Taffy Jones the Reverse' has denied him that freedom and blocked his lofted drives to long-on and square cover. So effectively has he stifled the once free-scoring wicket-keeper/batsman, that Gilchrist's average has slumped from close to the half-century mark to the low twenties. And the bottom-line of all these facts seems to be the conclusion that England has a better Brains Trust panel than Australia!

I question this hypothesis. Buchanan and his lieutenants have been working for years on analysing the batting, bowling, fielding and wicket-keeping strengths and weaknesses of every team and every player in the cricketing universe — from Bangladesh to Kenya. Their library of game blueprints would make England's plans look like the primary school reader: "John and Jane". It is my contention that the Australian game strategists have been so long at their task that they have become bored, complacent and even blas�; the players themselves have come to such a familiarity with their individual and collective, technical and tactical goals, that they now think that they can interpret and implement them according to their own lights. Accordingly a certain laxity — a lack of exactitude — seems to have crept into their performances — and certain individual differences of opinion have seeped into how best to achieve their goals. I ask myself why Ponting and Warne conduct long conferences on the field about the details of the leg-spinner's field settings? Surely such arrangements should have been discussed and finalised before the team took the field? As an outside observer, I sense that as each player's self-esteem has mushroomed as their run of successes has lengthened, so their egos have grown. Is it possible that beneath the surface, personality clashes are reducing the synergy of the team? Players now add television jobs to their playing roles. Aussies Brett Lee, Jason Gillespie, Adam Gilchrist, Stuart MacGill and their England counterparts, frequently front the cameras to top and tail Test telecasts. Cricket has come a long way from the times when players were not even allowed to speak to journalists without the imprimatur of the manager! Moreover, with the expansion of the support staff for a Test side, individual areas of responsibilities have become clear-cut. Steve Bernard is the CEO: the manager and the cricketing bureaucrat. Trevor Hohns chairs the selection panel; coach Buchanan is the organiser of victory and the preparer of the team for the struggle ahead; Errol Alcott manages the side's injuries and rehabilitation, while the areas of psychology, nutrition, fitness and the media each have their own particular guardians. The question I ask is: who looks after discipline and cracks the whip when it needs cracking — as it does now? Steve Waugh did in his time — but with his being forced out of the picture, the iron hand in the velvet glove seems to have relaxed its grip — and Ricky Ponting hardly seems the man to tighten it again. Discipline is essential to team's success. But I have sought it in vain in the tourists' performances, both on and off the field.

Even a technically correct Damien Martyn and prolific scorer Matthew Hayden fell prey to the English bowlers' plan.-AP

And finally I ask, where are the specialist coaches to oversee the correction of the technical faults in the skill performances of the Aussie Test team? Dean Jones and Kim Hughes — former-Test players-turned-media-men have both promoted the cause of such coaches throughout the present Ashes tour — but all to no avail. Correcting the technical deficiencies of Ponting's men has been left to the players themselves. It is presumed that players who have the experience of 50 Tests and scads of One-Day Internationals under their belts can do the job of skilled physicians who know how to heal themselves. A proficient trainer/coach could do the job; but I fear that if he had no Test experience, anyone who presumes to identify technical faults in a Tendulkar, Sehwag, Ponting or a Gilchrist, would be dubbed presumptuous.

The simple truth is that Test players are not omniscient in every department of cricketing skills. Bear in mind that champion golfers like Tiger Woods cart their coaches around the touring circuit with them — referring to them when a drive does not go where it was intended, or a putt does not fall — so that the on-hand mentor might be able to pin-point the miniscule cause of an error, which, in the worst possible scenario could cost the golfer hundreds of thousands of dollars in prize money!

But back to the final Ashes Test at the Oval. Lady Luck has not always been on Australia's side this summer. A few unfortunate decisions have gone against Ponting's batsmen; and injury and form have been unkind to key paceman McGrath, Gillespie, and Lee. But the time for Aussie complacency born of a decade of success is past. England's champions: Vaughan, Strauss, Trescothick, Flintoff and Harmison have shown that Ponting's players are far from invincible.

The Australian campaign has been based, quite justifiably, on decisions made in consultation with and by team consensus. But casualties of this tactic have been discipline and the need to take hard decisions. On the very eve of the deciding game, Hohns and his co-selectors bumped into the realisation that their job is not a popularity contest. Nothing was ventured and nothing gained! The time for excuses is past!