Cricket: Atherton aims for an upbeat finale

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With both the series and the Ashes gone to Australia, it is inevitable that the final Cornhill Test match starting today at The Oval will be dominated by speculation over the uncertain futures of the two captains. Contrasting as their teams' fortunes have been, there remains a distinct possibility that after this Test neither will lead their country again.

Which just goes to prove that win or lose, cricket, for all its sepia- tinted nostalgia, does not discriminate between victor and vanquished.

This summer could not have progressed more differently for Michael Atherton and Mark Taylor. The Australian captain and his team began in the doldrums; the leader, according to many at the start of the tour, had neither form nor a future. But while his team struggled and eventually lost at Edgbaston, Taylor plumbed the depths of his inner resources and came up with the hundred that would buy him the time to get his side back to business. It did not take long and once they remembered how to win, their efficiency was almost surgical in its precision.

Atherton, on the other hand, saw England begin their campaign deed perfect, as Australia were dispatched in both the one-day series and the first Test. Suddenly, though, expectation caught up with them and the true pressures of Test cricket - the need for relentless consistency - were brought to bear. As in the past against sides that can exert constant pressure, they were found wanting and three Tests were lost in succession.

But if the paths to an uncertain future are divergent ones, Taylor has the most to lose by being stood down. Captain or not, Atherton is still England's most reliable and technically proficient batsman and, injury permitting, has at least another three years of Test cricket in him. On the other hand, Taylor, without the captaincy and nearly 33, will almost certainly never play for Australia again.

However, if his own future is something Taylor can contemplate at leisure when he gets home from this tour, he could still empathise with Atherton. "I have a lot of feeling for Athers," Taylor said after net practice yesterday. "Whether it's right or wrong, the captain carries the can. What I don't ascribe to is that by changing the captain, or changing the coach or the team, you are going to change the way things are going. Cricket just doesn't work like that."

These will be heartening words to Atherton, who will contemplate his own future after this Test is finished. With England's good record at The Oval - 13 wins to Australia's five - many will be hoping a repeat of England's victory there against the Aussies four years ago (coincidentally, Atherton's first win as captain) will help persuade him to remain in charge for this winter's tour to the West Indies.

"A win here will be the best way to finish the series," Atherton said yesterday, although he added that it would be difficult to say whether it would have any bearing on his eventual decision regarding the captaincy.

After the coach David Lloyd's frank criticism of his team's performances on Tuesday, England nevertheless have a good chance of saving some face and recording their second victory of the series.

Still, it will not be easy. Taylor admitted that, with the rubber dead, theirs was not a "must-win situation". That said, his side, despite the absence of two frontline bowlers, were professional cricketers who play for Australia and would still be "turning up".

Being a Test match, the occasion will not lack for combativeness and both sides have new faces who have much to play for.

If Shaun Young, Gloucestershire's Tasmanian overseas player, and Mike Kasprowicz get their chance to make a belated point to their tour selectors, England's returning players, Mark Ramprakash, Phil Tufnell and (should Dean Headley's bruised ankle still be painful) Peter Martin, all have tour places to compete for.

For Ramprakash, a stellar if frustratingly under-achieving talent at Test level, the stakes could not be higher. After 19 Tests, he will know that few are granted the reprieve of resuming a Test career with a batting average of just 16.6.

As his captain said yesterday: "He has to play for the here and now as well as the years to follow."

With the positive endorsements of all those around him, Ramprakash must convince himself he is the world-class player everyone else believes him to be. To do that here, he must not only conquer two of the world's best bowlers, Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath, but those forces that conspire to deny him from within. It is a task only a man desperate to do himself justice would relish. For some, the future starts here.

ENGLAND (from): M A Atherton (capt), M A Butcher, A J Stewart (wkt), N Hussain, G P Thorpe, M R Ramprakash, A J Hollioake, A R Caddick, P J Martin, P C R Tufnell, D E Malcolm, D W Headley, B C Hollioake.

AUSTRALIA: M A Taylor (capt), M T G Elliott, G S Blewett, M E Waugh, S R Waugh, R T Ponting, I A Healy (wkt), S Young, S K Warne, M S Kasprowicz, G D McGrath.

Umpires: P Willey, L Barker (West Indies)

Third umpire: K E Palmer

Match referee: C W Smith (West Indies)

County reports, page 22