Atherton and oldies show some steel

FOURTH TEST: England take advantage of docile pitch but captain again m isses chance of century
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England 196-2 v Australia It used to be said of Geoffrey Boycott that he was the man you would most choose to bat for your life (although in the course of watching him do it, you would probably want to end your life anyway) and this mantle, among Englishbatsmen at least, has now passed to Michael Atherton.

Unlike some players, Atherton invariably gets his runs when the team most need them, and so it was again yesterday. The England captain won a crucial toss on an old-fashioned Adelaide shirt-front, and with the two old codgers in the side, Graham Gooch and Mike Gatting, chipping in either side of him, Atherton helped England to a first-day total that would probably have been a good bit more commanding than 196 for 2 had the weather not shaved (like the bestubbled Atherton) 15 overs off the day's allocation.

Atherton has a long memory, and despite the fact that the Australians under Mark Taylor are a sight more affable than they were under Allan Border, he does not care to fraternise with the enemy when serious business is at hand. He turns up to PR cocktailparties with all the enthusiasm of Dracula heading for a church social, and when he was asked to pose for publicity pictures with Taylor on the eve of the match, Taylor ended up doing them on his own.

Atherton has also responded to the captaincy in the same way as his predecessor, in that his record as a general is vastly superior than when he was a private. Before inheriting the captaincy, Atherton's record was 1,735 runs from 51 innings at an average of 34.7. Since then, he has made 1,562 from 30 at an average of 52, including four centuries, and nine scores between 50 and 99. If there is one blemish on his overall Test record, it is that he has reached yesterday's score of 80 on 16 occasions, and failed on nine of them to convert to three figures.

Yesterday's blip meant that he still has no century on this tour, and was particularly galling as Atherton could see as well as everyone else on the ground that a day of Turkish-bath humidity was about to be curtailed by what appeared to be Armageddon approaching over the Adelaide hills. Five minutes after he was out, the wind blew a couple of thousand meat-pie wrappers on to the ground, lightning fused the electronic scoreboard and television coverage was abandoned to broadcast pictures of uprooted trees and crumpled motor cars.

To compound it all, with England having lost only one wicket (and that to a bogus umpiring decision), Atherton did what he rarely ever does, and gave his own wicket away. David Boon had just been moved to deep square leg, and when Damien Fleming dropped one short, Atherton obligingly hooked it into Boon's podgy fingers.

Even allowing for Adelaide's square boundaries, the shortest in Test cricket, Atherton was not seriously attempting to smite it for six ("only hit one in my life in a Test match, and that was a top edge'') and could only confess to a "mental aberration".

He was severely brassed off, but given the number of English supporters in the ground (around a fifth of the 24,000 crowd), he still deserves a mild rebuke for not raising his bat to acknowledge the applause. Atherton, whose back trouble may be partly the result of carrying England's batting on it, has now been at the crease for the equivalent of nearly four days in the series and seen 15 partners come and go.

Earlier, England had confirmed the selection of Chris Lewis in place of the injured Graeme Hick, even though either Allan Lamb or David Gower might both have been better picks from the commentary box. In fact, as the teams lined up in the sun for the Australia Day national anthems, it was a bit of surprise that Lewis (as has happened before) did not keel over from sunstroke and leave England with 10 men.

Gooch and Atherton, who put on 203 when they last batted together in Adelaide in the 1991 series, this time made it to 93 before Gooch, who was equalling Gower's record of 117 England caps, was out in curious fashion in early afternoon. Hooking at Fleming, the ball flicked off his shoulder on to the peak of his helmet, and looped to Mark Waugh at second slip. Waugh, in fact, was the only Australian not to appeal, and looked as surprised as Gooch when the umpire raised his finger.

The arrival of Gatting gave rise to fears that it was a bit of a handicap to have the tail starting at No 3, but with Shane Warne getting nothing out of the pitch, and his leg-spinning partner Peter McIntyre specialising in long hops, Gatting tucked in as though he had been let loose inside a McDonald's.

He is less happy against the quicker stuff nowadays, and, on 20, was bowled by Craig McDermott through a gate big enough for Gatting himself to have got through. Luckily for him it was a no-ball, and Atherton also had one slice of good fortune when his edge off McIntyre should have been caught by Taylor at slip.

When the storm came, two hours went by before the umpires decided that another 15 minutes (potentially awkward ones for England) could be squeezed out of the extra hour, but Gatting and Graham Thorpe got through them with no bother at all. Despite the fact that Atherton almost lapped him yesterday on an all-run four, Gatting is as fierce a trainer as Gooch, and it may be no coincidence that two players with 78 years between them are the fittest members of a side with so many breakdowns that it ought to be sponsored by the AA rather than a brewery.

(England won toss; first day)

ENGLAND - First Innings G A Gooch c M Waugh b Fleming 47

(145 min, 105 balls, 4 fours)

*M A Atherton c Boon b Fleming 80

(272 min, 215 balls, 8 fours)

M W Gatting not out 50

(146 min, 111 balls, 7 fours)

G P Thorpe not out 16

(19 min, 19 balls, 3 fours)

Extras (w2 nb1) 3

Total (for 2, 293 min, 75 overs) 196

Fall: 1-93 (Gooch), 2-175 (Atherton).

To bat: J P Crawley, S J Rhodes, C C Lewis, P A J DeFreitas, A R C Fraser, D E Malcolm, P C R Tufnell.

Bowling: McDermott 21-9-31-0 (nb1) (6-3-13-0, 5-4-2-0, 6-0-12-0, 4-2-4-0); Fleming 20-4-50-2 (w1) (8-2-11-0, 6-0-16-1, 6-2-23-1); Blewett 11-2-37-0 (5-1-23-0, 6-1-14-0); Warne 11-2-39-0 (5-1-13-0, 4-0-21-0, 2-1-5-0); McIntyre 8-2-23-0 (w1) (3-1-7-0, 5-1-16-0); M Waugh 4-1-16-0 (one spell).

Progress: 50: 93 min, 23.2 overs. Lunch: 69-0 (Gooch 36, Atherton 32) 31 overs. 100: 153 min, 40.0 overs. 150: 232 min, 60.2 overs. Tea: 164-1 (Atherton 73, Gatting 42) 63 overs. Bad light stopped play 4.37-6.45pm at 182-2 (Gatting 46, Thorpe 7) 71 overs.

Atherton's 50: 170 min, 137 balls, 5 fours.

Gatting's 50: 133 min, 105 balls, 7 fours.

AUSTRALIA: M J Slater, *M A Taylor, D C Boon, M E Waugh, G S Blewett, S R Waugh, I A Healy, S K Warne, C J McDermott, D W Fleming, P E McIntyre.

Umpires: P D Parker and S Venkataraghavan.

Match referee: J R Reid.