Trophy shared, final ends in exciting tie

ONCE upon a time — well, a couple of weeks ago — there was a giant who lived on top of a mountain so high that he lost contact with the world he ruled.


ONCE upon a time — well, a couple of weeks ago — there was a giant who lived on top of a mountain so high that he lost contact with the world he ruled.

One morning he woke with a headache and decided that his people had too little fun in their lives. "I'll give them more entertainment," he shouted. "I'll change the rules." So he decreed — without asking anyone — that, even though the Laws of Cricket said there should be 11 players on each side, he would add a 12th who could be sent on to the field at any time and take over the duties of someone who was not quite up to the task. Just for the one-day games, you understand.

The giant — we'll call him ICC — also decided that it was more amusing to have the overs with fielding restrictions spread about a bit. Those who had loved the game for 30 years, respected its traditions, its grace and its standards were dubious but most said they would give it a try.

Right up until the final of the NatWest Series at Lord's when all the giant's theories were blown right out of the window. It was played under cloud cover which made the ball swing around so much that Australia, who had been sent in to bat, struggled for 48.5 overs to make 196. It was fascinating. For once the ball dominated the bat. Andrew Symonds, who likes to hit out, and Michael Hussey, another stroke player, had to work for their runs.

All England's quicker bowlers are used to these conditions and even Simon Jones who went for 29 in his first three overs stopped Australia so effectively that from 50 runs in the seventh over they scored only 146 in the next 40. Apart from booing the Aussies — a tradition here which means nothing; in fact it's a warm welcome — there was not a single protest about the slow scoring. Lord's spectators are not stupid. They loved the intense battle.

Cricket folk in general love the way this game changes both subtly and suddenly. ICC, on his mountain top, has never quite got the hang of that concept. He thought — sadly, he still thinks — that they want 700 runs in a day and that bowlers are just players who provide batsmen with the means to get the crowd going.

He has had "reports" and "indications" and "hints" that the middle overs are dull and that something must be done. Hence the rule changes. We'll see. England thought nothing would be easier than scoring 197 runs off 50 overs but Brett Lee and Glenn McGrath know a thing or two about bowling and after seven overs England were 33 for five. Job done, thought Ricky Ponting and his piratical crew; but they reckoned without the trench warfare mentality of Paul Collingwood, a born fighter, and Geraint Jones, who had mopped up 20 victims behind the stumps in the series. Having been educated at the Australian Academy, he had a special reason for wanting to show his former friends how the game can be played.

These two heroes batted together until they had added 116 for the sixth wicket and — to the surprise of the giant — left the 24,000 spectators gasping for more. The England tail got the scores level off the last ball — and could have won it with more enterprising running — and not a single watcher could drag himself from the ground before a tie was declared.

"What's this?" asked the giant. "Don't these people know what's good for them. We'll have to continue with the new rules until people learn how much fun they can have with substitutes and different fielding restrictions."

So despite the lessons of Lord's 2005 the new rules stay. Captains can send on substitutes whenever they please and have fielding restrictions when the whim takes them.

I am going to give these new regulations a chance. They might bring a lot of different perspectives and if they are used intelligently they may enhance the game.

But just tell me: how could this final have been improved? Would Michael Vaughan, the England captain, have been better off if he could have sent on a hitter at a time when Collingwood and Jones were fighting at two runs an over?

Ponting found he had a substitute on the field in Mike Hussey. I have a new respect for the Ponting tactical sense because he ignored the obvious choice — Damien Martyn who has bowled effectively in one-day games before — and brought on an all-rounder who produced four fine overs and took a wicket.

So the trophy is shared and quite rightly since the two sides had beaten one another once each and had a game spoiled by rain.

The NatWest Challenge, the next part of excitement, served as a build-up to the five Tests at Headingley, Lord's and the Oval. The experimental regulations, as drawn up by the giant on his mountain, had their first trial then.

As I hope I have made it clear, I am not impressed by the thinking and I trust that at the end of the ten-month testing period, the ideas will be dropped. After all, every one of the ten games of the NatWest Series, was watched by large numbers. What more can you ask?

The Lord's game is not the first blow to the preconceptions about the NatWest Series. It was supposed to be a walk-over for England and Australia and poor little undervalued Bangladesh were meant to be knocked to one side in no time.

Nothing of the sort happened. The little guys — minnows we used to call them in my days as a football reporter — not only stood up to the Australians in particular but, one bonny afternoon in Cardiff, beat them with a six in the last over. They took Australia to the wire again in Canterbury in the final match and, what is more, helped England identify some of the weaknesses that have occurred in the Australian batting techniques.

Against a bowling attack so weak that no self-respecting Minor County would hire one, Matthew Hayden seemed unsure, Adam Gilchrist looked as if he did not know which shot to play next and Ponting looked one very unhappy batsman.

It is customary to say, after writing such a sentence, that these are great batsmen in a bad streak and that, as Ian Botham is apt to say at least twice in every commentary stint, "form is temporary, class is permanent."

I am beginning to wonder. Is the era of Australian dominance at an end? Are these high-scoring bullies approaching the end of their cricket lives? Is there another great series victory in their worn and battered bodies?

At this point, these questions are unsettled. But, right from the moment Symonds had his big night out and was suspended for two matches — and almost sent home — I have wondered if all has been well in the Australian camp.

Has the coach John Buchanan outstayed his welcome? Is Ponting finding the captaincy a burden? In their effort to bury the image of the ugly Australian — visiting old battlegrounds, smiling a lot, cutting back on the sledging (which never happened in their rewrite of history) and being generous in interviews — has the change been too much.

Under Allan Border, Mark Taylor and Steve Waugh Australia developed into the most aggressive team the world has seen. Now they may be finding it is not easy to be Mr. Ruthless and Mr. Nice Guy at the same time as the spat between Simon Jones and Hayden showed.

The trouble is also that the Aussies have always wanted to be enemies on the field and pals afterwards provided it was understood there was more nastiness to come.

Their rules for cricket life say this dichotomy is possible, indeed compulsory, and they become indignant when someone rejects this ideal. More sensitive souls — led by the West Indians — say it is not. Now if the giant on his remote mountain top — who has an Australian accent by the way — could solve that little issue he might be doing a good job.

I hear he is moving from the mountains to a desert which might give him the chance to do a bit more constructive thinking. Heaven knows what he will come up with next but it is an appropriate place for him to remember the old saying that a camel is a horse designed by a committee.

The thoroughbred one-day horse that has developed over the last 30 years looked in pretty good shape at Lord's when the final was played like a Test and turned out to be none the worse for that.

The scores Final:

Australia 196 in 48.5 overs (Gilchrist 27, Symonds 29, Hussey 62 not out, Flintoff three for 23, Harmison three for 27) tied with England 196 for nine in 50 overs (Collingwood 53, Geraint Jones 71, McGrath three for 27).

9th match: Bangladesh 250 for eight in 50 overs (Nafees 75, Habibul Bashar 30, Khaled Mashud 71 not out, Watson three for 43) lost to Australia 254 for four in 48.1 overs (Gilchrist 45, Ponting 66, Clarke 80 not out, Symonds 42 not out).

8th match: Australia 261 for nine in 50 overs (Ponting 34, Martyn 36, Symonds 74, Hussey 45, Gough three for 70) v England 37 for one in six overs (Strauss 25). Match abandoned

7th match: Bangladesh 208 for seven in 50 overs (Javed Omar 81, Tushar Imran 32, Khaled Mashud 42 not out, Flintoff four for 29) lost to England 209 for five in 38.5 overs (Trescothick 43, Strauss 98, Manjural Islam three for 57).

6th match: Bangladesh 139 in 35.2 overs (Nafees 47, Md. Ashraful 58, Brad Hogg three for 29, Symonds five for 18) lost to Australia 140 for no wkt. in 19 overs (Gilchrist 66 not out, Hayden 66 not out).

5th match: Australia 266 for five in 50 overs (Hayden 39, Ponting 27, Martyn 68 not out, Symonds 73) beat England 209 for nine in 50 overs (Solanki 34, Flintoff 44, Gough 46 not out).

4th match: England 391 for four in 50 overs (Trescothick 85, Strauss 152, Collingwood 112 not out, Nazmul Hossain three for 83) beat Bangladesh 223 in 45.2 overs (Javed Omar 59, Md. Ashraful 94, Tremlett four for 32, Collingwood six for 31).

3rd match: Australia 252 for nine in 50 overs (Gilchrist 26, Hayden 31, Clarke 45, Hussey 84, Watson 25, Harmison five for 33) lost to England 253 for seven in 47.3 overs (Vaughan 57, Pietersen 91 not out, George Hogg three for 42).

2nd match: Australia 249 for five in 50 overs (Hayden 37, Martyn 77, Clarke 54, Hussey 31 not out, Katich 36 not out, Baisya three for 69) lost to Bangladesh 250 for five in 49.2 overs (Md. Ashraful 100, Habibul Bashar 47).

1st match: Bangladesh 190 in 45.2 overs (Aftab Ahmed 51, Md. Rafiq 30, Mortaza 29 not out, Lewis three for 32, Harmison four for 39) lost to England 192 for no wkt. in 24.5 overs (Trescothick 100 not out, Strauss 82 not out).