Atherton digs in as England stand ground

FOURTH TEST: Captain defies Australian seamers before late wicket blow as pitch row rumbles on between the showers: England 106-3 v Australia
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It was another testing day for those spectating, as heavy showers forced prolonged interruptions. When a large chunk of play did take place towards the end of the day, it was filled with a tantalising battle between bat and ball.

On a pitch that has received more attention and conjecture than the surface of Mars, England, after being put in, fought their way to 106 for 3. It is not a position of impregnability, but with their captain, Michael Atherton, still there, it could still become a challenging enough total for England to bowl at.

Atherton would not have been too upset at losing his fourth consecutive toss of the series. Unless there had been a sudden change of heart as the first grey clouds rolled in at around 10.30am yesterday, he had wanted to bat first all along, despite the inclusion of the debutant Mike Smith ahead of Andy Caddick.

What he probably did not envisage was that he would not get off the mark until 5.15pm, his neat clip to leg coming off Paul Reiffel in the 10th over. The intervening hours were filled with a mopping-up operation that somehow managed to make playable an outfield covered in sheets of water.

The pitch now looks and plays like the surfaces of a decade ago, when accurate seam bowlers ruled the roost. As long as the cracks go on widening as the game goes on, anything above 250 should prove highly competitive.

That kind of score, however, will take some getting and once Australia's pace bowlers had settled in, batting was always going to be fraught with surprises as the ball shifted about in both horizontal and vertical planes.

Neither the surface nor the bowlers had much to do with the first two wickets to fall, both of which were caught by Greg Blewett at short leg. The first was that of Mark Butcher, who, having confidently made his way to 24, was unlucky to see a meaty clip off Reiffel end up enveloped in Blewett's lap.

No such excuse was available for his Surrey team-mate Alec Stewart who, enduring something of a lean patch, badly needed a score. Unfortunately, his tame dismissal as he popped up a shortish ball from Jason Gillespie to short-leg was the product of his own hesitation.

After that, Atherton and Nasser Hussain endured few alarms until the Essex vice-captain, drawn into parrying at one just outside his off stump by Glenn McGrath, opened the face of his bat and edged to first slip.

With two overs of the day to go, the anguish of Hussain's error was written all over his face. Without it, England could have claimed the upper hand.

If play was in short supply yesterday here (only 37 overs were possible) the drama over the pitch continued unabated beyond the boundary's edge. Not content with the murmurings of disapproval voiced by Australia's captain, Mark Taylor, earlier in the week, the team manager, Alan Crompton, lodged a written complaint to the England and Wales Cricket Board as well as the International Cricket Council's match referee, Cammie Smith.

The nature of Australia's disapproval is not about the state of the pitch or even the late switch made last Friday, but the role played by David Graveney, England's chairman of selectors, in bringing about the swap.

Crompton clearly feels strongly about the issue. "We have no problem over the decision to change the pitch," he said. "But we think it totally inappropriate that the decision to do so should be made by the chairman of the selection committee.

"We believe it is inappropriate that the chairman of selectors has anything to do with the choice of pitches or the preparation of pitches. Indeed, apart from Graveney's involvement, we have no concerns at all and we've made this complaint before a ball has been bowled, so there would be no suggestion of sour grapes later."

What did happen later was a short meeting between Crompton, Graveney and the ECB's chief executive, Tim Lamb, held at the back of the Members' Tavern.

Afterwards Lamb cleared the air. "I can assure you that David Graveney did not take that decision and Alan Crompton has accepted that," he said.

"I have quizzed David about this, because I know it is causing a lot of people a lot of angst. I hope we've now put the record straight. It is nonsense to suggest the chairman of selectors should make these decisions, because it is the ground authority's responsibility for preparing Test pitches. They have to face the consequences if things go wrong."

For his part, Graveney has always maintained that the decision to change pitches was made two weeks ago by the Yorkshire groundsman, Andy Fogarty, and Harry Brind, the ECB's inspector of pitches, who informed Graveney of his decision while the chairman was holidaying in Spain. All Graveney then did was to visit Headingley on his return from Spain in order to see the new strip with a view to selection.

To take the matter this far is not usually the Australians' way. Yet while they have always claimed it is the Poms who have a monopoly on whingeing, there has been a discernible "holier than thou attitude" evident since their tour of Pakistan three years ago, when accusations that they were approached to rig matches first surfaced.

Since then their deportment - as illustrated by Taylor's bizarre spiel about drumming out the crooked elements in the game at the last World Cup final - suggests they have appointed themselves as the moral watchdogs of international cricket. So far, though, their bark has been far worse than their bite.



Australia won toss

ENGLAND - First Innings

M A Butcher c Blewett b Reiffel 24

(61 min, 57 balls, 2 fours)

*M A Atherton not out 34

(156 min, 97 balls, 5 fours)

A J Stewart c Blewett b Gillespie 7

(27 min, 24 balls)

N Hussain c Taylor b McGrath 26

(57 min, 40 balls, 4 fours)

D W Headley not out 0

(8 min, 7 balls)

Extras (b4 lb1 w1 nb9) 15

Total (for 3, 156 min, 36 overs) 106

Fall: 1-43 (Butcher) 2-58 (Stewart) 3-103 (Hussain).

To bat: G P Thorpe, J P Crawley, M A Ealham, R D B Croft, D Gough, A M Smith.

Bowling: McGrath 13-1-43-1 (nb1 w1) (7-0-25-0, 6-1-18-1); Reiffel 13- 2-25-1 (nb8) (6-1-10-0, 7-1-15-1); Gillespie 6-0-14-1, Blewett 3-0-17- 0, Warne 1-0-2-0.

Progress: First day: rain delayed start until 12.08pm. Rain stopped play 12.25-1.25pm at 9-0 (Butcher 8, Atherton 0) 4 overs. RSP 1.28-4.53pm at 14-0 (Butcher 9, Atherton 0) 4.5 overs. 50: 75 mins, 17 overs. 100: 146 mins, 33.4 overs.

AUSTRALIA: *M A Taylor, M T G Elliott, G S Blewett, M E Waugh, S R Waugh, R T Ponting, I A Healy, S K Warne, P R Reiffel, J N Gillespie, G D McGrath.

Umpires: M J Kitchen and C J Mitchley.

TV Replay Umpire: R Julian.

Match Referee: C W Smith.