Australia capitalise on fumbles

CRICKET: Slater's century celebration subdued after chances go begging as A team delay their final Test selection in India
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Australia 283-4 v England Perth is two and a half time zones from Adelaide, and England's start to the fifth Test match was a light year away from how they ended the fourth. After Adelaide, the upbeat mood was contagious, but yesterday, the deflationary hiss of escaping optimism was mostly to do with not catching.

Of all England's shortcomings on this tour, the most glaring has been the fielding, and yesterday's ratio of caught four, dropped four, is not the sort that is calculated to win Test matches. When you give the likes of Michael Slater four innings, you can expect to see some fairly nasty numbers on the scoreboard at the close of play.

Slater's 124 was his sixth century in Test cricket, his fourth against England, and his third of this series. However, he was dropped on 0, 59 and 87, and Mark Waugh, who assisted Slater in a third-wicket partnership of 183, had made 18 of his 88 when he, too, was dropped in the gully.

The first over was about the most eventful of the day, when Devon Malcolm fizzed past Slater's outside edge with his first and third deliveries before finding it with his fourth. The ball flew wide enough to Graham Gooch's right at third slip to make it a difficult one, but having got both hands to it, Gooch probably should have clung on. He has not said as much, but it is his declining reflexes in the field, as much as loss of confidence with the bat, which has finally persuaded Gooch to call it a day.

Malcolm himself was the fielder involved in Slater's next two lives, which meant that there was an inevitably comic air about both of them. The first was a straightforward return catch which Malcolm not only dropped but also totally lost sight of, and ifSlater had not been so consumed with relief, he could probably have taken a single while Malcolm was still groping around looking for the ball.

The second was a top-edged hook off Phillip DeFreitas, which Slater regarded as such a simple offering that his weary trot to the other end was a symbolic gesture of having given up hope. However, the ball was in the air for so long, that there was time to recall a similar incident many years ago involving Ken Higgs, and an equally hopeless fielder. "Keep on running, son," Higgs said "and don't stop until you're inside the pavilion." "Don't be daft, Ken," came the reply "I'm going for two. Have you seenwho's underneath it?''

Malcolm never threatened to catch it. He took a couple of steps forward, a couple more backward, and his final lunge forward was too late to involve anything other than his fingertips. DeFreitas looked mortified, but he could scarcely have been too surprised. Waugh's escape, as he failed to get over a cut off Chris Lewis, was not too surprising either, as it also involved one of England's poorer fielders (which is quite an achievement for a 23-year-old) in John Crawley.

On the credit side, Mark Ramprakash took a blinder at cover to get rid of David Boon, whose form has deteriorated to the point where he cannot be entirely sure of making Australia's tour to the West Indies, and DeFreitas and Lewis also picked up sharp offerings to finally get rid of Slater and Mark Waugh.

Lewis was also England's best bowler yesterday, and it is remarkable to think that he only came to Australia for a holiday and bit of club cricket in Melbourne. Lewis has spent a fair amount of his Test career looking like a club cricketer on holiday, but his talent has never been in dispute, and once again he has raised hopes that he may yet offer something more than an occasional glimpse of his ability.

This was not a disastrous toss for England to have lost, given that they decided to do without Philip Tufnell in order to place all their eggs in the fast bowling basket, but after an impressive and unlucky spell with the new ball, Malcolm did not createthe carnage that had been anticipated on the bounciest pitch in Test match cricket.

Slater might have been lucky yesterday, but he is an exhilarating player to watch, and spent a good deal of this innings either sitting on his backside or with both feet off the ground. The former was his method of dealing with anything short, and the latter with anything pitched in his own half.

When Slater goes for the drive, he does not so much lean into it as launch himself at it, and there is no batsman currently playing, let alone an opener, who is so unafraid to hit the ball in the air. This, of course, applies more against England's fielders, in that if the ball does not clear them, they are unlikely to catch it in any event.

Australia's progress in mid-afternoon was so untroubled that Atherton whistled Ramprakash up for a longish spell of off-spin, an act of faith apparently not shared by his Middlesex captain, Mike Gatting, who gave Ramprakash all of two overs in the entireCounty Championship season last summer. Ramprakash is not the worst off-spinner, although the fact that he turned a few yesterday will not have made England entirely happy with Shane Warne in the opposition line-up.

It was a single off Ramprakash which took Slater to his century, an event that he normally greets with some emotion. On this occasion, though, having had three separate lives, Slater stretched out his arms to the dressing-room more by way of apology thancelebration, before planting his traditional kiss on the crest of his batting helmet.

Slater eventually batted for five hours before he was caught (at the second attempt) by Lewis at cover point off a not particularly good delivery from DeFreitas, and Mark Waugh, who was not at his most fluent, was picked up at square leg whipping anotherordinary ball from Lewis off his pads. Otherwise, England's fielding was only something to write home about in terms of several exasperated foolscap pages in Atherton's end of term report.