The English garden is still full of weeds

Published : Sep 08, 2001 00:00 IST

ENGLAND'S improved batting performances in the last two Tests against Australia shouldn't give the impression that everything is rosy in their garden. Their victory in the fourth Test came because of a good batting display, but only made possible by a very generous declaration.

In the final Test England's bowlers were massacred as Australia closed their innings at 641 for four, at a massive four plus per over. Just about the same rate they had managed in every Test.

Such a scoring rate shouldn't come as a surprise, for a quick check of the county scores each day will show that this is pretty much the norm in English domestic cricket.

Little wonder then that the English bowlers can't restrict the opposing batsmen at a higher level and with so many loose balls bowled, very little pressure is being exerted on the batsman to force him into error.

As I write I can't name one county bowler of any variety who could bowl, on demand, even two or three maidens in a row.

Not so long ago every county had a finger spinner or a medium-pacer capable of doing this.

Almost from the beginning I have questioned the wisdom of central contracts. It all sounds grand. Restrict the cricket played, particularly by the bowlers and this will keep them fresh and free from injury is the theory.

All very well, but what about fitness and form? As Gary Player, the great golfer said, "the more I practice the luckier I get." England didn't get lucky either with fitness or form and paid the consequences.

I have become very concerned in the last few years about the need to conserve players from too much cricket. I can understand this to some extent, but always come back to the same concerns: how do you maintain form and how do you improve your game?

Undoubtedly, cricketers practice and train less than any other sportsmen and this is particularly noticeable in England. The number of overs bowled each year by bowlers is just about what was considered about half a decent workload just a few years ago.

Is that good for cricket? I doubt it, for even with the lesser workload bowlers still complain about being overbowled and are being injured just as much and I suspect even more than in earlier years.

Yorkshire, with a surplus of pace bowlers and using a rotation system, have had more injuries this year to their quick men than any other team. Is this too much bowling, bad luck or aren't they working hard enough to avoid injury?

Just how much cricket does a Test player, play per season? I will use Mike Atherton as an example, as he has remained fit all year.

He has played in seven Tests this summer. As many haven't lasted the full distance this means he has played 29 days. For Lancashire in both county and one-day cricket he has played 22 days. In all 51 days in five months. I wouldn't have thought that is a huge workload, and in fact probably not enough to keep you in top form.

I have always felt performance-based contracts are the way to go. While it is comforting to have a central contract where you are paid whether you play or not, does this make the player hungry enough?

Certainly it is justified when a player is genuinely injured, but will it entice a player to drop out when he has just a niggle or a minor strain or pain?

It is interesting to compare Steve Waugh's recovery from a bad calf muscle tear - just about the most debilitating injury you can get - to some of the English players' seemingly long absences from what appeared on the surface to be only minor worries.

In Errol Alcott, Australia have a superb physio who is a near genius in getting players back on the field. He has been with the Aussies since 1984 and has saved the career of many an Australian cricketer. His greatest gift is that he gets injured players back on the field quickly. He is tough, compassionate, very skilled and demanding both of himself and his patient.

To get Steve Waugh fit he would have on many occasions worked with him on a four-hour rotation right around the clock. It wasn't money that got Steve Waugh back on the field when the medical profession said he was out for the tour, but pride, determination and a great physio.

I am of course not privy to the full details and extent of the English injuries. What I do know, however, is a broken little finger wouldn't have kept me out of a Test. As an opening batsman and a slip fielder they were part of the territory and you seldom went a season without one.

I would have been scared even as a secure captain and batsman to miss a match, for it would have given another batsman a shot at my place.

'Never give the opposition a break', has been the motto of Australian cricket and it applies equally to your teammate if he is seeking your position.

Steve Waugh didn't need a psychologist to make him want to play. His pride, surely the greatest motivator, wouldn't have allowed him to miss the fifth Test. He had to give it his best shot.

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