Atherton considers opening gambit first test: Gooch likely to be paired with Atherton as tourists approach the se cond Test with morale shaky

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In this part of the world, the only reindeer with red noses are the ones that have forgotten to put the sunblock on, and even though Victoria's capital is the kind of city in which the barometer can go up and down like a hotel lift, the chances o f England winning the second Test match here are not significantly greater than Melbourne having a white Christmas.

Itineraries do not come much crasser than this one, and of the 66 days England have thus far spent in Australia, only five of them have been devoted to the main item on the agenda. However, even though this Ashes series is only one-fifth of the way through, anyone predicting that England can overturn tradition and come back from 1-0 down is also liable to be found lecturing at Speakers' Corner on the lines that the earth is flat and the moon made of green cheese.

Only three months have passed since the England captain, Michael Atherton, offered the hopeful opinion that his team's wonderfully aggressive victory over South Africa might usher in a brave new dawn, but for England, the clocks once again appear to havestopped at midnight.

They are tired (both from the travelling on this tour, and near non-stop international cricket since January), dispirited (by a series of woeful performances) and, with scarcely a fully fit man left in the squad, physical wrecks. Apart from that, everything is absolutely fine.

No two-horse race is ever a foregone conclusion, and as England are given to sudden bouts of bearing a faint resemblance to a professional cricket team, they cannot be entirely written off. Even so, nothing they have done since Brisbane suggests that thecorner has even been approached, much less turned.

Such has been the extent of the sick and injured list, that Atherton would gladly have settled for only having to put a line through two names when he sat down at selection today with his newly arrived chairman of selectors, Raymond Illingworth. Joey Benjamin is not match-fit, and Craig White was in such pain from his side injury when he attempted a couple of gentle deliveries in the nets yesterday that he can be written off for the next Test in Sydney as well.

England also have Devon Malcolm available again after missing the Brisbane Test, and Malcolm is busy getting himself pumped up to bowl flat out. However, if it is anything like the slow, low pitch for the 1991 Test here, flat out is more likely to be a reference to Malcolm's horizontal position in the dressing-room after play.

Malcolm was approaching full velocity in Toowoomba, but how much pace he can generate here is hard to say. The one predictable thing about Melbourne pitches, like Melbourne weather, is that they are always hard to predict. Yesterday, this one was a little damp, with plenty of grass, although with Shane Warne in the Australian side, tomorrow morning may yet see it dry and bald.

England are reasonably hopeful that Phillip DeFreitas and Darren Gough will have recovered sufficiently from groin and hamstring injuries, and there will presumably be no place for Angus Fraser unless Atherton takes the unlikely option of omitting Phil Tufnell.

All the batsmen are fit, even though Mike Gatting's right cheek is still swollen enough to look as though he is attempting to conceal a meat pie. On the evening after his injury in Toowoomba, Gatting took an early fitness test in his hotel room, after the physio had advised a supper of soup through a straw, plus some ice cubes to reduce the swelling. When he checked out the patient the next morning, a series of room service trays made him a touch suspicious, and Gatting confessed to a pizza, a lasagne,garlic bread, and red wine.

The last time Gatting was in Melbourne for a Test match, in 1986, champagne was on the menu. However, since Gatting captained England to an Ashes-retaining victory inside three days, Australia have subsequently won 13, drawn six, and lost only once (the final game of a dead rubber) in Test matches against England.

Gatting's unbeaten double century in Toowoomba makes it likely that he will retain his place in an unchanged top six, although there may yet be an overdue alteration in the order. Atherton, having begun the tour in inflexible mood over opening the batting with Alec Stewart, has now conceded that moving Stewart to No 5 and opening with Gooch is now a possibility worth exploring.

Gooch has been in good form throughout the tour, but it may now be that he is finally approaching the Methuselah status he has been claiming for himself since he was about 30. He is more prone these days to lapses in the field, and has often got himself out, when well set, to the kind of shots that finally made him despair of David Gower.

The option of Stewart keeping wicket will not yet be pursued, even though Steven Rhodes neither looks the part in that department, nor with the bat. Atherton is confident, he says, that Rhodes will come good. Being well aware that the major difference between these sides is in bottle and aggression, he is keen not to lose Rhodes' undiminished attributes in those areas.

Australia have only two minor worries, firstly to make sure they achieve the increasingly difficult objective of taking England seriously, and secondly whether to make a change in their attack. It is possible, albeit unlikely, that they will leave out Warne's spinning partner, Tim May, but the greater probability is Damien Fleming for Glenn McGrath in a straight swap as Craig McDermott's new-ball partner.

Fast bowling is the one area in which Australia are probably even weaker than England, and to describe McGrath as ordinary in Brisbane would be unwarranted flattery. Fleming, the 24-year-old Victorian who took a hat-trick on his Test debut against Pakistan in October, can swing the ball away from the right-hander, and has been described as the new Terry Alderman over here. For England's sake, let's hope this is an over-imaginative description.

ENGLAND (probable): *Atherton, Gooch, Hick, Thorpe, Stewart, Gatting, Rhodes, DeFreitas, Gough, Malcolm, Tufnell.

AUSTRALIA (probable): *Taylor, Slater, Boon, M Waugh, Bevan, S Waugh, Healy, McDermott, Warne, May, Fleming.