Difficult as it may be for the newly initiated to conceive, as players from Manchester to Taunton perform the last rites on a season even non-adherents are unlikely to forget in a hurry, Shane Warne, scourge of England, will be doing his bit for Queen and county. But then a good many architects of Australia’s downfall are Australian.
The most prominent is Troy Cooley, the Tasmanian bowling coach whose pace quartet finally shook his country’s grip on the Ashes. Then there is the similarly straight-talking Rod Marsh, once a Pom-basher on the field but now director of the National Academy, in which capacity he has groomed the likes of Andrews Flintoff and Strauss.
Wherever you looked in the shires over the past
decade, an Australian was doing something to compound competitiveness or instil intensity. Kevin Pietersen honed his shots against Glenn McGrath (Worcestershire), Michael Kasprowicz (Glamorgan) and Warne (Hampshire). Flintoff developed those bouncers and yorkers against Justin Langer (Middlesex) and Matthew Hayden (Northamptonshire). Middlesex’s Strauss, Michael Vaughan’s heir apparent as England captain, has expressed his debt to Langer. The impact on Geraint Jones of a brief Kentish sojourn by Steve Waugh, the era’s most resilient cricketer, can readily be imagined.
With a weak Australian dollar, the wages were tempting; and experience of English pitches was hardly going to hurt one’s ambitions to wear that baggy green cap. Yet after decades when the Australian board frowned on players joining counties this influx of antipodean brains and brawn reflects the theory espoused by Marsh and Warne: not only is a weak England team bad for cricket, one-sided Ashes battles are less fun than warm lager.
Nottinghamshire won this year’s championship under captain Stephen Fleming, probably the most Australian leader New Zealand has had; Warne’s influence as Hampshire skipper has been even greater. In his quest to turn the Rose Bowl into a Test venue and bring the club its first pennant since 1973, chairman Rod Brams-grove, an old-school patron, dug deep into his pockets to get the leg-spinner. He has not been short-changed.
Even though the best Hampshire could hope for when the final round began was second place, they have won the C&G Trophy. Warne’s friendship emboldened Pietersen; learning the ropes under the aegis of the most dynamic cricketer of the age can only hasten the maturation of up-and-comers such as Chris Tremlett.
Stuart Law, a British citizen after a decade of prolific run-making for Essex and Lancashire and marrying a lass from Burnley), believes county cricket has improved im-measurably since he left Queensland for Chelmsford. It is more competitive more Australian, he insists.
A less flattering perspective comes from the erstwhile New South Wales coach Steve Rixon, divorced from Surrey after two intensely frustrating years as manager.
“I can’t lie, I haven’t enjoyed it,” admits Rixon. Unprofessional, thin of talent, mistrustful of youth: even with experience, his view of county cricket has barely altered. “For 25 years people have said the same thing – there’s too much [of it]. All you’re doing now is capitalising on some very gifted players. You should have had people busting to replace Simon Jones for the final Test but all we had was a lot of tired fast bowlers. We are seeing a culture change among the younger players. They like enjoying themselves. But there’s still not enough emphasis on winning. There shouldn’t be points for draws.”
With Rixon gone, Marsh heading to Dubai to run the Global Cricket Academy, and fellow West Australian Tom Moody having left Worcestershire to coach Sri Lanka, the Aussie factor is diminishing – mission admirably, if sometimes inadvertently, accomplished. It remains to be seen whether New South Wales’ hiring of Graham Thorpe as a state coach signifies the onset of a new order.