Stewart's series ends in ashes
Mark Taylor and Alec Stewart, rival Ashes captains, both identified English batsmen's lack of grounding in slow bowling as their overriding weakness after the leg-spin of Stuart MacGill brought a hollow end to their imaginings of an historic Ashes recovery.
Just as Shane Warne's leg-breaks had terrorised England in Taylor's past two Ashes series as Australia captain, so England faltered at the last yesterday against a new adversary as MacGill's prodigious turn brought him 12 wickets in the match. No side have ever beaten Australia in Sydney when chasing a fourth-innings total above 200, and England, 98 runs short of their 287 target, were no different.
"In the last two Tests, at Melbourne and Sydney, England have been as impressive as any side I have faced in three Ashes series," Taylor said. "They have had their chances and have taken them. They haven't just made us wobble; they have nailed us.
"But the only way you can grow in confidence against this sort of spin bowling is by playing against it regularly. England don't get a lot of practice against good spin bowling. It doesn't exist in their domestic cricket and they don't play Tests in the Sub-continent very often.
"The Indians play our spinners best of all. They have a bit of a go at us. They don't start behind the eight-ball. They know they can handle it, so they challenge it more often."
Stewart was quick to explore a similar theme. "In the last two Tests we have showed what we are capable of, but we didn't master Australia's spin bowling," he said. "They bowled very well and we came unstuck. If we don't have top-quality spinners back home then our leading batsmen are not going to play spin well."
England had employed a team psychologist to explore past traumas; they had enlisted the help of the Australian-born leg-spin coach Peter Philpott, who had been MacGill's first tutor at the North Sydney club and who had the entire squad bowling leg-spin in the nets in private sessions.
It was all to no avail. England's commendable desire to use their feet against the spinners repeatedly courted disaster, and for many the sweep shot became a liability, with MacGill bowling Graeme Hick and Alex Tudor behind their legs in the second innings.
Nasser Hussain and Mark Ramprakash received particular praise from both captains. Not only were they England's most productive batsmen of the series - increasingly regarded by Australia as the partnership to split - their outstanding fielding was also instrumental in reinvigorating a side who dropped 20 catches over the fiveTest series.
Identified, along with Graham Thorpe, at the start of the Nineties as England's most accomplished young batsmen, their Test pedigree had finally been confirmed, even if neither managed to make 100 in the series. That their advancement did not occur more rapidly serves as a reminder about the unintensive culture of England's domestic system.
MacGill's Test-best return of seven for 50, achieved more by massive turn than a wealth of variety, confirmed him as a pressing rival to his illustrious leg-spin partner, Shane Warne. The Warne comeback became more impressive as the Test progressed, although he took only two wickets in the match, dismissing Mark Butcher in his first over in both innings.
MacGill's development has been swift since his debut against South Africa in Adelaide a year ago and Taylor regards his improvement as more mental than technical. "Stuart MacGill was switched on in this game," he said. "When he isn't, he will say that maybe his front arm isn't right, or his back arm isn't right, but it might be largely a mental problem."
Taylor had discarded his white sun hat on the final day in favour of the Australian baggy green cap, aware that he might be captaining his country in Australia for the last time. It was both an honest display of national pride and a shrewd psychological ploy, underlining that Australian respect for tradition goes hand in hand with a recognition that the standards set by the best side in the world need constant examination.
Stewart, meanwhile, was left with a very English muddle, stoutly defending the reputation of the coach, David Lloyd, who was rumoured over Christmas to be considering resignation after next summer's World Cup. "I hope I will be working with David Lloyd for a long time yet," Stewart said. "He has done a tremendous job. We have never been better prepared. He has not indicated to me in any way that he wants to stand down after the World Cup."
Ian Botham last night launched an outspoken attack on England for being "tactically naive" in the series and suggested skipper Alec Stewart was taking on too heavy a workload.
The former England skipper called for more imagination in the side.