Cricket: Atherton top of McGrath's Ashes hit list

First Test: England gamble on opener's `dodgy back' withstanding the force of a hungry Australian pace attack
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OVER THE past three Ashes series, one of the most frequent cries heard from the England side has been "if only we had Shane Warne". Well they don't, though pertinently neither do Australia, at least not for the Gabba, where the first Test starts tomorrow.

Brisbane is one of Warne's favourite hunting grounds and last time England were there four years ago he took 11 wickets, his eight in the second innings tumbling England to defeat. The blond leg-spinner's absence cannot be taken lightly and Stuart MacGill, his replacement, has a task almost as big as England's.

The first Test of a series is always a noticeably tense affair and England have tried to allay nerves by naming their XII 48 hours before the first ball is bowled. The positive news is that Michael Atherton's name was among them, though the final decision over his fitness - one the selectors are leaving entirely down to him - could be made as late as the morning of the match.

Atherton's presence promises to provide one of the great tussles of the series with Glenn McGrath. Indeed, last time the pair did battle in England two years ago, McGrath dismissed him seven times in six Tests. Worryingly, many of those dismissals were with well- directed bouncers, a ploy that McGrath will use again, if only to test the flexibility of Atherton's back as he is forced to duck and weave.

"I'll probably loosen him up with a few short ones," McGrath said. "If he's got a bit of a dodgy back then he's probably not getting under short balls as well as he would like.

"I've had quite a bit of success against Athers and if we can knock him over early it puts us in a better position."

Alec Stewart has no qualms about Altherton. "I'm very confident Mike will be all right," he said after England's practice yesterday. "His fitness record is excellent and he's only missed one Test in the last five years."

England's preparation, hit as it has been by injury in the warm-up matches, has otherwise been going well. Apart from a small disruption from a thunderstorm and a net area in the middle of a building site - the noise of which even drowned out David Lloyd's exhortations - most things have been running to speed.

If there is uncertainty, it is over playing six or seven batsmen, though should the former prevail, it will be Robert Croft who will play in place of John Crawley. Australia nearly always play seven batsmen - that is, if you include Ian Healy as a batsman - and four bowlers. Providing their swing bowler, Damien Fleming, has recovered from his back strain, their dilemma is whether to pick the home-town boy, Mike Kasprowicz, or the remodelled tiro Jason Gillespie.

"I know which combination I favour," said Stewart, which suggests that the other selectors, Lloyd and Graham Gooch, may not be in agreement with him.

Ever since Cairns, Stewart has hinted that he wants six batsmen and five bowlers, one of whom must be a spinner. It will be a good test of the weight of his captaincy to see if he gets his way. Lloyd is thought to favour seven batsmen and four seamers, an option that will become increasingly attractive should further thunderstorms, like the one that hit Brisbane on Wednesday evening, return and green up the pitch.

Should such conditions prevail, the Gabba can be a notoriously difficult pitch to read, which can make it a good toss to lose. "A bit like Trent Bridge last summer, then," joked Stewart, who, after inserting South Africa on what appeared to be a greenish pitch, then had to endure much criticism when England failed to bowl them out cheaply. Although England went on to win that match, Stewart later admitted his decision to be wrong.

Whatever the conditions, England will have to be robust and take their chances, characteristics - if the tour matches are anything to go by - they are starting to exhibit.

"We've showed a lot of fight on this tour so far," said Stewart. "We haven't hit 100 per cent form yet, but we've shown enough good qualities, though we need consistency of performance if we are to win the Ashes."

One of the worries is the absence of runs from Stewart's brother-in-law, the opener Mark Butcher. So far Butcher has managed nine first-class runs in five visits to the crease. Fortunately England's other left-hander, Graham Thorpe, is averaging 110, while all the top six, bar Butcher, have scored a half-century.

"Everyone can have dips in form, and both Mark Taylor and Justin Langer both failed recently," explained Stewart. "Butch is good enough technically, and mentally he fits the bill as well."

As the new millennium beckons, England are about to undertake the most condensed Ashes series this century. Five Test matches in 47 days is intensive cricket, especially with the heat and distances involved in Australia.

"The good thing about that," said Stewart, commenting on the back-to- back nature of the second Test at Perth, "is that if you get on a roll you can't wait for the next Test to come round." Unfortunately the converse is also true, and should England lose at the Gabba, the bouncy pitch in Perth will appear even more hostile than usual.

FIRST TEST TEAMS

The Gabba, Brisbane, starts tomorrow

ENGLAND

M A Atherton (Lancashire)

M A Butcher (Surrey)

N Hussain (Essex)

*A J Stewart (Surrey)

G P Thorpe (Surrey)

M R Ramprakash (Middlesex)

J P Crawley (Lancashire)

D G Cork (Derbyshire)

R D B Croft (Glamorgan)

D Gough (Yorkshire)

A R C Fraser (Middlesex)

A D Mullally (Leicestershire) (12th man to be named)

AUSTRALIA

*M A Taylor, M J Slater, J L Langer, M E Waugh, S R Waugh, R T Ponting, I A Healy, D W Fleming, J N Gillespie, M S Kasprowicz, S C G MacGill, G D McGrath (12th man to be named)

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