Another fiendish plot

Stephen Brenkley says an upturn for Australian fortunes was inevitable
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The Independent Online
Something nearer normal service was resumed for a while in Birmingham yesterday. For seasoned, if jaundiced observers of the England team, there had seemed two possible explanations for the first two days of the Ashes series when, revitalised, they played cricket in excelsis.

Either it was indeed a dream in which being at Edgbaston, of all places, was like walking through a sun-kissed meadow in which life held the promise of eternal sweetness. Or it was another fiendish Australian plot, designed to overcome their own lack of initial preparation on this tour. They would play several England players into form, ensuring their selection for the rest of the summer, then play them out of it again and come back to win the rubber.

Whichever it was, in this world reality was bound to intrude and for several hours yesterday it did so. England batted gaily for 35 minutes in the morning, learning something about the pitch on the third day, extending their lead and keeping Australia waiting. The packed, distinctly unjaundiced house, it soon became obvious, expected immediate and deep incisions into Australia's second innings which they began 360 behind. Ten years of repeated failure, match after match, session after session, and two days of virtually unhindered but not completed triumph and miracles were already regulation.

It was eminently sensible of the England coach, David Lloyd, to warn after day one that there were still 29 days of the series left and after day two that there were 28. Lloyd, infectiously upbeat though he is, happens also to be pragmatic enough to have realised that only at 20 complete days up with 10 to play would his boys be safe.

Australia's little revival was a pertinent reminder. They have not become the best Test side in the world by rolling over and pleading for mercy, and it was as well that all England became reacquainted with this. If the euphoria which greeted England's resplendent performances in the first half of the match was entirely understandable, the hysteria surrounding the Australian captain's lack of form has been less so. The bare fact remains that under Mark Taylor the Australians have won more often than they have lost.

It was inevitable that Taylor would recapture his form, and perhaps as equally certain that he would do it against England. The paradox was that he did not look out of the commodity from the moment he started his rearguard action yesterday. Certainly he had his slices of luck, but these are the slices which have eluded him for 18 months.

It had become part of the game's currency to count up how many innings Taylor had gone without a half-century. It was 22, but in that time his overall Test average stayed at 42 and his overall record as captain, averaging 33, remained respectable. This was his 50th innings since assuming the leadership and his 11th score above 50 in all during that period. From the start, far from being unsure, he looked sort of Australian, which means determinedly resilient.

English supporters like him, despite the damage he has inflicted on their aspirations since 1989 and they may not have minded his making a few if the wickets tumbled at the other end. They did not. Taylor and Elliott made the first stand of above 100 since Taylor last made more than 50, against Sri Lanka in December 1995 when he and Matthew Slater shared 228 runs. It may not be the last, but for an England side still learning to live with the best, that may be no bad thing. They found out yesterday that there is not only a series to be won still, but also a match.