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January 10, 2003

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Future: uncertain?

Daniel Laidlaw

They say you don't really appreciate something until it's gone. In the rare absence of Glenn McGrath for the fifth and final Ashes Test in Sydney, Australia discovered the unsettling truth of this aphorism.

The fast bowler from Narromine is not gone, merely carrying a side strain that saw him miss the last Test, but his absence, after a remarkable run of 54 consecutive matches stretching back more than four years, provided a mildly disturbing glimpse into the future for the Australians. While England can take credit for the resilience that enabled them to secure a consolation victory and the Australians can cite tiredness, the real reason for the result appeared to be the composition of Australia's bowling attack, not fatigue levels or a marked improvement by the tourists.

Australia likely will not properly appreciate the value of McGrath (and to a lesser extent Warne) until he's no longer there, a prospect in the middle-distant future in which they will not be rejoicing. Despite being the sixth-greatest wicket-taker of all time with 422, the feeling remains McGrath is an under-appreciated cricketer in his own country, at least outside his team. It is not that he is not held in high esteem, as most would be quick to nominate him world's best, but that his value is not matched by concomitant publicity and his attributes seemingly taken for granted.

In being so unremarkably (for a bowler of his distinction) reliable -- accurate, metronomic, consistent, and other insufficiently flattering terms -- it is difficult not to take his presence for granted, and to believe that his aura is characteristic of the smothering pressure the rest of the Australian attack generates generally. But, plainly, it isn't.

Not to undersell the rest of a usually still menacing group, in particular the hapless and hobbled Gillespie who went into the match with knee soreness before falling on his elbow, but they all stand taller in McGrath's presence.

Much is made of the depth in Australian cricket, quite a bit of it justified, as evidenced by Australia A's three-hour mauling of a woeful Sri Lanka in Adelaide on Tuesday. Less understood, though, is how it is the top performers like McGrath, who really elevate the Test side to its remarkable level, a notion most easily discerned only in their absence.

Fatigue? Leg-spinner Stuart MacGill, though he bowled a marathon 84 overs in Melbourne and a further 85 starting three days later in Sydney, would have relished the opportunity for that workload after no international cricket for virtually 12 months. Andy Bichel, who values the opportunity to play whenever he can, had not played since the second Test. And while Gillespie was definitely suffering, Brett Lee had missed the first two Tests while Bichel was in. It is slightly misguided, then, to cite fatigue as an issue, for while it is undoubtedly true generally at the end of a series, it also applies equally to England, as coach Duncan Fletcher pointed out.

It is forcing a team to follow-on, taking 210 overs to bowl them out twice, then in the Test immediately following being out in the field for 127 overs in the first innings followed by 126 more in the second which is fatiguing -- and the main reason for that is the reduced quality of the attack. The Australians were somewhat lost and diffuse without their spearhead. Gillespie was hampered by injury, but Bichel is more of a support bowler, MacGill a normal leg-spinner in that he is prone to inconsistency, and Brett Lee seems to enjoy the special dispensation of bowling however the mood takes him, which too often has been pretty short, pretty ineffective or a combination thereof. They're a better bunch with McGrath.

Of course, it would be quite hypocritical to describe Australia as "injury-plagued", citing that as a reason for defeat. It is not the Australians who have had an unprecedented number of players -- by now too many to even recount or remember in detail -- injured and sent home. Still, on the occasions Australia loses a Test, the question is naturally asked why, and it's inevitable that the reasons given will sometimes appear excuses to the wearied victors, as it must have done to Fletcher, who rightly noted England has had far more injuries, and been toiling for longer, than the Aussies.

It is doubtful, though, that anyone is seriously suggesting England were not deserving winners. Rather, the point is that success is almost always more fragile than it appears, as those who had money on the 5-0 result would have discovered to their dismay.

As Waugh said, "It's hard to maintain that intensity over a long period of time."

 It would be nice sometimes if the Australians could match England's genuine appreciation of their opponents, rather than the grudging "they outplayed us", but it's a trivial criticism.

England's consolation victory was reward for their resilience. It would have been easy to be on the verge of breakdown by the end of the series, but they maintained equilibrium through the adversity. If they were victims of a "psychological stranglehold", as was a popular theme earlier in the series, they could not have won the last Test from 4-0 down, or fought back as they did from half way through the fourth.

For this, much is owed to Michael Vaughan, far and away England's best player and the one to leave the strongest impression, with his quality of strokeplay and temperament. He had already shown himself to be world-class during the English summer and continuing that form in Australia has only enhanced his standing, whereas opening partner Marcus Trescothick slipped backwards.

The opportunity to declare against Australia, which Vaughan provided, is extremely rare. It is now easier to imagine a time when, as David Hookes has advocated, Australia selects five bowlers and plays Adam Gilchrist at six. For without the control over the game, and shorter time in the field, that McGrath and Warne provide them, four bowlers leaves the attack slightly stretched.

At this time, a few years from now, the brilliant batting won't be the entertaining luxury it has at times appeared during the Ashes. Ricky Ponting will have to ensure there is no relenting in the work ethic which has driven Australia to the top, because unless more special talent comes through the ranks, which it may, they will need to work that much harder.

Matthew Hayden genuinely failed for the first time in recent memory in the fifth Test. Previously, dismissals had been a mistake of his own making by attacking, but in the first innings he failed to pick up a swinging Caddick full toss and in the second was beaten by Hoggard's inswing, playing down the wrong line. He was so shocked that it could happen that pieces of the dressing room door were left shattered on the floor and 20 per cent of his match fee collected by the match referee.

All of it is a timely reminder that Australia should not take what it has for granted, including one Steve Waugh, whose dramatic hundred on the second day was graciously praised by Nasser Hussain. Remember, Australia are not even officially rated the No. 1 Test side any more, which, joke though it is, does reinforce that winning is never a given. Is it really in their interests, then, to risk a middle order that reads Martyn, Lehmann, Love?

If it suits his circumstances, there is every reason why the redoubtable Waugh should continue for a while longer yet.

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