Chris Waters: England's '12th man' proving key in fight to keep Ashes

TIME was when England's fielding Down Under was a laughing stock.

There would be Phil Tufnell trying – and failing – to stop the

ball with his foot.

There would be Devon Malcolm losing his glasses just at the vital moment when a catch came near.

And there would be Monty Panesar raising the art of the comical mis-field, much to the delight of Australia's supporters.

Why, things got so bad during the 1980s that a piglet was released on the outfield at Brisbane with "Both" (Ian Botham) daubed on one side and "Eddie" (Eddie Hemmings) on the other.

Needless to say, some considered the piglet the nimbler of the three.

Contrast that with the slick, finely-honed English fielding unit of modern vintage and the yolk is very much on Australia.

Whereas the tourists' groundwork and catching has been richly impressive, exemplified by Paul Collingwood's breathtaking one-handed slip catch yesterday to dismiss Ricky Ponting, Australia's has had more in common with the Dad's Army school of professionalism.

Indeed, it is debatable whether England have sent out a more agile fielding side to contest the Ashes, or whether Australia have more closely resembled Captain Mainwaring's Home Guard.

In addition to the consistently outstanding Collingwood (surely one of the greatest fielders the game has seen), Graeme Swann has been 'catching pigeons' in the slips, Jonathan Trott has been lethal in the in-field, while the general standard of England's labours has warmed the cockles of their bowlers and supporters.

Australia, on the other hand, have been embarrassingly sloppy.

Michael Clarke, Michael Hussey, Xavier Doherty and Brad Haddin all grassed chances during the second Test in Adelaide, where the difference between the teams was exemplified by two incidents involving Trott and Doherty.

Whereas Trott swooped like a gazelle to run-out Simon Katich during the first over of the match, thereby setting Australia on the road to an innings defeat, Doherty missed the stumps by two feet when a chance came to run out Trott early in his innings.

On such fine margins do matches – and series – turn.

But no-one should be surprised.

For one of the biggest differences between the teams this time has been their attitude towards the employment of a specialist fielding coach.

So important a member of the backroom team is considered England's fielding guru Richard Halsall that he – not Graham Gooch – took charge of the side when head coach Andy Flower was temporarily indisposed in Brisbane.

Australia, on the other hand, have seen fit to use their own fielding coach, Mike Young, only on a part-time basis.

Although Young oversaw operations during the first Test in Brisbane and is currently on duty at Perth, his services were not required at Adelaide and Cricket Australia say they will not be utilised during the fourth and fifth Tests at Melbourne and Sydney either.

According to CA spokesman Peter Young: "Mike is one of the specialists that comes in from time to time, but he doesn't travel full-time with the team.

"He is normally most focused with the team around one-day cricket and short-form cricket and he is part of our planning for the ICC World Cup in 2011.

"But he is not part of the normal Test cricket scene with our side."

Former Yorkshire and Australia batsman Darren Lehmann has warned CA must appoint Young full-time or risk losing the Ashes.

"We need to have Mike there for every Test," said Lehmann.

"He's the best fielding coach we could have. He was at every Ashes Test last time."

Financial considerations might have influenced CA's thinking but Lehmann made clear: "Who cares about the cost? If we lose the Ashes, it's not a great result for us. I can't understand it. We've got a fielding coach and we're not using him full-time in a series like the Ashes."

Halsall, a 42-year-old sports scientist who played a handful of first-class games for Mashonaland and Cambridge University, is one of six coaches employed by England along with head honcho Flower, Gooch (batting), David Saker (fast bowling), Mushtaq Ahmed (spin bowling) and Bruce French (wicketkeeping).

He found his way into the job via Brighton College and Sussex and bases his philosophy on three words – "physicality, precision and sacrifice."

In a recent interview, Halsall declared: "Sacrifice comes in many forms, but in terms of fielding it means all those extra yards that only your team-mates really appreciate.

"It's about diving full-length on rock-hard outfields that cut and scrape your body, chasing down what appear lost causes, sprinting 40 yards to congratulate a mate, or simply backing up a throw just in case something happens.

"Sacrifice also means practising a skill 100 times so you can execute it the one time in a hundred you need it."

Although his words reek of the psychological twaddle so beloved of coaches, there is no doubt Halsall is having a positive effect.

Indeed, perhaps the most striking aspect of Collingwood's wonder catch to remove Ponting – a leaping, right-handed effort to clutch a ball that seemed some way behind him – was that it came as little surprise.

Not only was it the latest in a long line of stunning catches by the Durham man, but just another example of high-quality fielding by a side who have so far taken the crucial chances that have come their way.

There were echoes of Strauss's diving one-handed take to dismiss Adam Gilchrist at Trent Bridge in 2005 in Collingwood's latest tour de force, which enabled England to stamp their authority on the game in the same way Trott's run-out of Katich set the tone in Adelaide.

Collingwood's catch also maintained the mounting pressure on Ponting, who has played 24 Tests since the start of last year and averaged 39.87 – some way down from the stellar standards he sets for himself.

Just as Ponting has been a shadow of his former self, so England's fielding has been unrecognisable from the bad old days.

This time, the only names likely to be daubed on the side of piglets are those of Australian fielders.