| English players cock-a-hoop after their final Ashes Test victory in Sydney
Sydney produced one of the great Test matches, the sort I live to play in, but in the days since it ended on Monday — spent playing some golf, seeing the family off at the airport and getting our one-day side together again — a thought that might seem strange has occurred to me. That it might have been better if we had lost.
Eight times in a row now we have lost a Test series against Australia, but in the last six of them we have won a match, usually after the series has been decided. For the most part we have been outplayed by Australia and deep depression has prevailed, then suddenly we have won a game and the mood is of utter joy.
England’s wins have usually been good, like 225 runs, and not by scrappy margins. What concerns me is that these consolation victories have been used to paper over our deficiencies. While the Sydney win was certainly worth celebrating, we must not lose sight of the fact that it was the same old story of England being outplayed by Australia when the series was at stake, and that we must look to change the nature of our cricket as a result.
Otherwise it would have been better if we had lost 5-0, because that would have forced us all to take a closer look. My vision of what English cricket should be starts at Northampton. It is the only ground in England that I know of, which is regularly like a Test pitch overseas, like Sydney, or those in India and Pakistan, or South Africa and West Indies.
Good batsmen make a lot of runs on it and only good bowlers can take wickets. If I could have a single request granted, it would be that we have pitches like Northampton everywhere — not just in county cricket but at Under-19 and Under-16 and club level as well.
County cricket is producing the right players. But what we need to do is produce the right conditions so that they can develop in the right way and learn to defeat Australia. County cricket is a completely different game.
The balls swing around for 60 or 70 overs in the conventional way, then keep low on relaid pitches as the game goes on. No spinners are needed. No accuracy is needed either, because if you bowl a wide one it will swing and either miss the bat or take an edge, so the seamers grow up with bad habits. In these conditions, batsmen too — even Michael Vaughan — grow up with bad habits and little confidence, not knowing where their off-stump is.
It is no coincidence that the only times England have beaten Australia in the last eight Ashes series have been when we have caught them in these sort of conditions. In Sydney the ball swung for Matthew Hoggard, then it lifted and kept low for Andy Caddick, who bowled brilliantly in the second innings. But the conditions were exceptional for Test cricket.
In the rest of the world, the ball normally swings in the conventional way for only 10 to 15 overs. In Test cricket over all, 70 per cent of swing now is reverse-swing. Take three talented English players — Andrew Flintoff, Robert Key and Steve Harmison. I wonder, when they came on this tour, how much better they were than when they started out in county cricket four or five years earlier.
Harmison learned to reverse-swing the ball regularly out here. In five years of county cricket he says he reverse-swung the ball once, in a game against Glamorgan in Cardiff. In my opinion we have to produce Northampton-like pitches if we are ever going to take 20 wickets against Australia.
Our bowlers have to learn accuracy, because if they are an inch out, batsmen like Matthew Hayden, Ricky Pointing, Sachin Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag, will take them apart.
Our pace bowlers have to grow up learning other tricks apart from swinging the ball. At team meetings I say: “Let’s have some of those yorkers and slower balls,” like that split-fingered slower ball Glenn McGrath did me with at Melbourne, or the slower ball which the Australian 21-year-old Shane Watson bowls out of the back of his hand.
And Duncan Fletcher says: “Wait, you’ve got to practise them for at least six or nine months in the nets before you try them in a match.” In other words you shouldn’t be starting to learn when you’re already playing for England. This is where we’ve missed Darren Gough in the last few months.
In the same way one-day batting has made it a different world for spinners. If Hayden and the others know which way the ball is going to turn, they will keep on smashing it with low-risk shots. Only when they don’t know which way the ball is going to turn — from Harbhajan Singh or Muttiah Muralidharan or Shane Warne — does the big shot become high-risk.
The two types of bowling which have been successful against Australia are raw pace, or mystery spin. The whole youth coaching structure has to be looked at to find out why we’re not producing these types and why our pitches don’t lend themselves to them. Suppose we had pitches like Northampton throughout county cricket — how many more Vaughans might emerge, perhaps his Yorkshire teammate Antony McGrath, or Jim Troughton and Ian Bell for a start'
It is far easier to express yourself when you are averaging 40 or 50, as Vaughan has proved over the past year, rather than 24 and trying to survive in the side.
I firmly believe cricketers adapt. If you give them the right conditions, and time between games, we’ll produce the right cricketers to beat Australia.
Do we want a week like last week on a regular basis when we play Australia' Or are we just happy with the occasional consolation victory' Everyone concerned about the future of English cricket must take a very close look and decide.