Cricket: Atherton makes his stand point

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BEFORE his knock at the Bellerive Oval against an Australian XI, Michael Atherton's three-figure scores for England abroad had become almost as mythical as the Tasmanian Tiger - both had been known to exist but none had been seen for quite some while.

In fact, the last known Tassie Tiger was filmed at Hobart zoo in 1934, a year after England had won the Ashes in the Bodyline series. Fortunately for Atherton, centuries haven't been quite so hard to come by, his last hundred-plus score for England on foreign soil coming some 22 months ago in Christchurch. He was England's captain then, a job he has been reacquainted with here after both Alec Stewart and Nasser Hussain were rested.

Out of sight out of mind, they say, and there is little doubt that before this century Atherton had been an anonymous presence at the head of England's order. Before this knock he was averaging 19 on tour with just one fifty.

"Actually at the start of the tour," Atherton said, "I felt I was hitting the ball as well as I've ever done. Obviously the preparation got messed up a bit in Adelaide and Cairns, when I had those injections for my back, but I always felt a big score was around the corner."

Asked if the day's exertions had affected his back, Atherton said: "No, it's fine," although you could tell he did not want to linger on the subject.

Figures alone can be deceptive however, and Atherton has not looked out of touch on the tour, an observation that could not be applied to his Lancashire team-mate John Crawley. If Atherton's nemesis has so far been Glenn McGrath, Crawley's has been the haymaker he got in Cairns from a passing thug.

Confidence is a curious thing and batsmen mourn its passing far more than any prized bat. At the moment Crawley's confidence is as low as it gets, a state that would not have been leavened by his dismissal, when he allegedly edged a ball from Greg Blewett which he looked to have played over the top of. Mind you he had already been dropped on 22 by Stuart Law at second slip, once again nibbling at a ball well outside his off- stump.

Since the Adelaide Test, Pom-bashing has been in overdrive, particularly in the Aussie media. This game, against an Australian side widely thought to be the next best line-up to the one that beat England, has been billed as a sixth Test match. If it was, the only one being tested was the Aussie physio Pat Farhart, as three of the home side's players fell injured.

The first to go was the off-spinner Gavin Robinson, who after waking with a back spasm, never even made it on to the field. With Atherton having won the toss and batted, it was imperative that the remainder of the skipper Darren Lehmann's bowlers stayed put. Unfortunately, after three balls of his second over, Paul Reiffel pulled up lame, a strain to his right groin rendering him incapable of further bowling.

Later, with the score on 272 for 3 and the second new ball just three deliveries old, Mike Kasprowicz felt a twinge in his hamstring and promptly marched off. With only two 12th men, the deficit meant that Allan Border, the Australian XI coach, was consigned to long periods in the field as Lehmann fiddled his support bowlers - of whom there were a surprising number - as best he could.

Although there is little doubt that the injuries took some of the gloss off the achievement, Atherton, still unbeaten on 154 at the close, felt it had been an important innings. "Obviously there are other innings that have meant more," he said, "but I needed those runs today and it was good to spend time at the crease."

Deeply miffed at being left out of the one-day squad, Atherton enjoys a pointed rejoinder as much as the next man. A cussed soul, it was typical that he made his point with willow rather than weeping.

"A kick up the arse always wants to make you prove the selectors wrong," he said. "There are two things you can do when you've been dropped: sit and mope or get off your backside."

Naturally it was the latter that prevailed, mainly through enhanced footwork. You can always tell when a batsman is playing well by the amount of flex in his knees. When you watch someone like Mark Ramprakash, who scored 65 in a 139-run partnership with Atherton for the third wicket, the knees tell you all you need to know. Similarly with Atherton, if the knees are bending the back is fine and the hands are going high through the ball.

If proof were needed, Atherton struck at least seven of his day's quota of 18 fours between cover and mid-off, an area that tends to be neglected when the feet are not moving and the knees are stiff. Even so, Atherton remains a one-paced batsman whose only gear change is to decelerate, and he left it to Ramprakash to try and move the score along.

Since forming the foundation for England's efforts in the Tests, Ramprakash has gained in confidence to the point where he is playing in much the same uninhibited vein as he does for Middlesex. Having weighed up the bowling, he played several big shots, including a huge straight six off Stuart Law, who was bowling leg-breaks rather than seam.

Indeed it was trying to force the pace before the close that lead to his downfall, a quicker chinaman from Michael Bevan taking the bottom- edge as he tried to pull to midwicket. On a day when bowlers of all types found it hard to impress, it was a rare breach, and one that Graeme Hick, batting cautiously for 47 minutes until the close, did not allow to widen.

Meanwhile in the other cricket saga here it was announced that Mark Waugh and Shane Warne will give evidence by video link to the Pakistan bribery inquiry this week, though the time and place have not yet been finalised. The Australian Cricket Board had been negotiating with the Pakistani judge Malik Mohammed Qayyum over his request to re-examine the pair following their admission to dealings with a bookmaker on Australia's tour to Sri Lanka in 1994, when they provided pitch and weather information. Neither board nor players had been keen for them to return to Pakistan to give evidence. It is not known whether the evidence will be public.

First Day, England won toss

England - First Innings

*M A Atherton not out 154

M A Butcher c Richards b Law 25

J P Crawley c Gilchrist b Blewett 27

M R Ramprakash b Bevan 65

G A Hick not out 14

Extras (lb5 w2 nb6) 13

Total (for 3, 95 overs) 298

Fall: 1-57 2-125 3-265

To Bat: B C Hollioake, W K Hegg, D G Cork, A J Tudor, A R C Fraser, P M Such.

Bowling: Kasprowicz 18.3-2-67-0, Reiffel 1.3-0-4-0 , Julian 23-4-58- 0, Blewett 20-1-59-1, Law 12-2-41-1, Bevan 16-3-47-1, Elliott 3-0-7-0, Lehmann 1-0-10-0

Australia XI: M T G Elliott, G S Blewett, C J Richards, *D S Lehmann, S G Law, M G Bevan, A C Gilchrist, P R Reifell, B P Julian, M S Kasprowicz, G R Robertson.

Umpires: S G Davies and P Parker