Atherton searches for competitive edge

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The Independent Online
CRICKET As England clambered back into their blue pyjamas for today's World Series match against Zimbabwe, it was a timely reminder that they need to set the alarm clock for the start of a Test match series, rather than employ their customary habit of waking up half-way through one.

While the England captain, Mike Atherton, was understandably relieved that his team had finally managed to resemble professional cricketers in Sydney, he will also be aware that England have developed a habit of only competing in Test match series when they are effectively out of them. After all, with a month of the tour still to go, their primary objective - the Ashes - has already disappeared.

England's last victory over Australia, at The Oval in 1993, came when they were already 4-0 down. In Barbados last winter, they came back from a humiliating 46 all out in Trinidad to win the next Test in Barbados, but as they were by then 3-0 down with two to play, this was nothing more than another consolation goal. Finally, the Oval victory over South Africa last summer was a late equaliser, rather than a winner.

Furthermore, England's last-day performance in Sydney was more the hallmark of a side that has forgotten how to win, rather than one that is desperate to rediscover the formula. On the crucial final morning, there was nothing in either the bowling or thefield placings to suggest that Atherton was looking to make things happen, as opposed to the Micawberish hope that something might turn up.

The something, finally, was the rain - welcomed by most Australians in drought-stricken New South Wales, but rather less so by the 11 cricketers representing their country at the Sydney Cricket Ground. A benign pitch suddenly began playing up, and while England's attack - and Angus Fraser in particular - bowled an impeccable off-stump line, there was also an element of Australia's batsmen getting out to the new ball because they could barely see it.

The floodlights may not have been turned on at the SCG, but they were certainly blazing at the rugby ground over the road, and the cricket ground's giant video screen shone so brightly through the Stygian gloom that it gave the ground the atmosphere of adrive-in movie.

Had it not been for the weather, Australia might have come breathlessly close to making 449, a fourth-innings total only once bettered in Test match history.

That was in the Test in Durban in 1938-39, when England were set to make 696, and had to pack it in at 654 for five on the 10th day because their boat back to Southampton was threatening to sail without them.

What sort of reception awaits England when they take the aerial route home this time depends more on the results of the final two Tests than whether they win some tinpot one-day series, and Atherton has a fair amount of pondering to do over selection before the Adelaide Test, which is three weeks away.

He is one of Stephen Rhodes' most ardent admirers, but Rhodes is having the sort of tour on which he appears to be batting with a toothpick and keeping wicket with a pair of dustbin lids.

Jack Russell must, therefore, be a serious contender for Adelaide, as -given Mike Gatting's poor form - must the newly arrived Neil Fairbrother. If Fairbrother makes runs in the one-dayers, Atherton's Lancashire captain will be in with a decent chance ofresurrecting his Test career, and England would also like another left-hander to counter Shane Warne.

Also, the difference between Fairbrother and Gatting in the field can be fairly summed up as the equivalent of Muhammad Ali in his prime versus a sumo wrestler.

Whether England have picked up enough confidence from this Test to win one or both of the final two remains to be seen. The bottom line is that they failed to win.

When Australia were as apparently hopeless as England have been in the last few years, having lost the Ashes to Mike Gatting in Melbourne in December 1986, they won the final Test in Sydney when Peter Sleep, the leg spinner, bowled John Emburey with seven deliveries of the game left. Including that match, England have played Australia 22 times since 1987, and the score stands at 14-1 to the opposition.

The fact that Atherton, despite losing the Ashes, was in a chipper mood on Thursday night was probably down to two things - Fraser (who left the field to a standing ovation) and the post-match press conference.

Asked to explain England's improved showing by a journalist whose newspaper had taken a hangman's view about Atherton awarding his team a day off between the Melbourne and Sydney Tests, the captain's eyes lit up like an in-form batsman spotting a leg stump half-volley.

"what was the difference between here and Melbourne?'' Atherton asked. "A lazy day on the beach, most probably."

nUmpires Darrell Hair and Steve Bucknor are to be officially rebuked for their handling of the third Test. The match referee, John Reid, has confirmed that he will mark down both men because of the "final over farce" which saw the Sydney Test re-started.He also plans to reinforce the need to use TV replays to clear up close run-out appeals.

England A win, page 47