Atherton garners few clues : CRICKET

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The Independent Online
CRICKET Martin Johnson reports from Bendigo Victoria 222-8 v England "Hail The Poms" was the front page headline in the Bendigo Gazette, which conjured up images of an all-conquering army as opposed to an outfit resembling the remnants of the Light Brigade. The Gazette's upbeat match preview continued with the observation that England would be "desperate" to maintain their record of not having lost a tour match in Bendigo, whereas England were a good deal more desperate not to lose any more players before next week's fourth Test in Adelaide.

They came through unscathed yesterday, albeit only just. Steven Rhodes was hit on the nose by a ball from Phil Tufnell that shot up out of the bowlers' footmarks, and although his team-mates waved for the physio, had he been on the scorecard he would have been recorded as "absent injured."

Less than an hour before Rhodes was hit (with no serious consequences) Dave Roberts had set off for Adelaide for an examination on torn tendon complications with his broken finger. Having set a new record for player replacements, it would put the tin lidon it if England had to send for a replacement physio.

On the face of it, this match is something of a Test match trial, except that England have effectively picked their team already. With Alec Stewart back, the only change from this 11 will be Angus Fraser for Joey Benjamin, and unless someone else pulls afetlock in the next few days, the good folk of Bendigo will have had more of a sighting of Benjamin on this tour than some of England's own players.

In fact, only the tour manager, M J K Smith, has been spotted less often than Benjamin, and the sight of Benjamin bowling, and Smith making a circuit of the ground shortly before lunch, made for something of a collectors' item double. Most people have been under the impression that they had both gone home several weeks ago.

Before England's exit from the World Series, this match was scheduled for three days rather than four, and the cricket was so dull yesterday that the crowd would not have regarded this extra helping as a bonus. However, if anyone felt driven to drink, this was not a bad place to be, as Bendigo has a higher number of pubs per head of population than anywhere in Australia. The Bendigo Total Abstinence Society building is just around the corner from the ground, but judging by its dilapidated appearance, isabout as competitive as England against Australia.

Neither did England suggest yesterday that they are about to improve their Ashes record in Adelaide. Devon Malcolm bowled encouragingly quickly, but after Michael Atherton had inserted Victoria on a damp pitch (morning drizzle delayed the start by 70 minutes) England allowed a below-strength opposition to recover from 106 for 6 to 222 for 8.

Conditions will not be so seamer-friendly in Adelaide, which has acquired such a reputation for spin that the Australians are rumoured to be considering two leg spinners, Shane Warne, and Peter McIntyre from New South Wales.

With Shaun Udal back home, England have only one spinner left in Tufnell, whatever nonsense is occasionally spouted about Graeme Hick's potential as a Test bowler. Atherton rates him so highly that before yesterday Hick had only bowled 20 first class overs since 13 November, and although he took his first wicket since then, it was the result of an inside edge on to the stumps rather than vicious spin or beguiling loop.

Tufnell bowled pretty tidily, and clearly took the view that he would have had more than three wickets had the umpires not had an even more serious finger problem than the England physio. Benjamin made progress inasmuch as it is marginally better to be innocuous than invisible, and Phil DeFreitas lost his early snap once the hardness had gone from the ball.

England have had trouble dislodging stubborn batsmen in Bendigo before, and in 1932, Douglas Jardine was so fed up by an opening partnership that he (illegally) called his 12th man on to the field, someone by the name of Larwood, to bowl Bodyline. As Atherton's 12th man yesterday was Mike Gatting, he did not bother.

(First day: England won toss)

Victoria - First Innings M T Elliott st Rhodes b Tufnell 10

R P Larkin c Benjamin b Malcolm 49

*D M Jones lbw b DeFreitas 4

B J Hodge c Atherton b Malcolm 10

G Gardiner c Hick b Tufnell 11

I J Harvey c and b Hick 41

D Emerson b Tufnell 3

P R Reiffel lbw b Gooch 34

D S Berry not out 30

S H Cook not out 7

Extras (1b 6lb 8nb) 23

Total (for 8, 88 overs) 222

Fall: 1-43 2-52 3-72 4-87 5-96 6-106 7-165 8-210.

To bat: T R Corbett.

Bowling: Malcolm 20-2-52-2; Benjamin 19-6-43-0; DeFreitas 18-6-36-1; Tufnell 20-2-59-3; Hick 7-1-14-1; Thorpe 2-1-6-0; Gooch 2-1-5-1.

England: *M A Atherton, G A Gooch, G A Hick, G P Thorpe, A J Stewart J P Crawley, S J Rhodes, P A J DeFreitas, J E Benjamin, D E Malcolm P C R Tufnell.

Umpires: D L Holt and R A Emerson.