Cricket: Atherton wary despite being upbeat

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The Independent Online
As Michael Atherton walks out to toss with his opposite number this morning at Edgbaston, he will have every reason to feel more than a little upbeat. For one thing, he will have equalled Peter May's record as England captain, an accolade which marks him out as a great survivor. More importantly, however, he knows that his side not only possess a "feel good" momentum, but the psychological high ground as well. It is not often England have been able to claim that against the Aussies in the last decade and mean it.

They are still not the bookmakers favourites, though, for either the series or this first Cornhill Test. And yet Australia's recent showings against the pie throwers and ne'er do wells of county cricket suggest a team struggling to rekindle its focus after a gruelling winter. A team ripe and ready for the taking.

With injuries as well as the continued patchy form of their captain, Mark Taylor, adding uncertainty to the fatigue, Australia have not looked as vulnerable since the huffings and puffings of Ian Botham last blew their house down in the 80s. If things continue as they are, Atherton's men could well be on course to regain the Ashes. An outcome unthinkable five months ago as they laboured round Zimbabwe with long faces and short fuses.

Even so, six Tests is an awful long time to rely on your opponent's disarray. Which is why Atherton yesterday stressed the need for his side to hit the ground running, though presumably in the recent manner of Donovan Bailey rather than Michael Johnson.

"We need to start well," he said as England went through their pre-match preparations. "From the first ball of the first session we need to grab the initiative early and go from there.''

It was a comment that suggested that England might well bowl first, though Atherton would not be drawn into revealing either his team or his preferences should he win today's toss.

There can be no great secrets, unless Devon Malcolm is not going to play and since Phil Tufnell's departure back to Middlesex, the only position that would seem up for discussion is the all-rounders spot at No 7 - a place initially thought likely to fall to Mark Ealham and not Adam Hollioake.

Yesterday, however, there were rumours that Hollioake might play after all, which, if true, would mean he would join his Surrey team-mate, Mark Butcher, in making his Test debut. It would also mean that England feel the pitch too sporty to use just three front-line seam bowlers in Darren Gough, Andrew Caddick and Malcolm.

Butcher's promotion after an excellent winter for the "A" team in Australia is proof that England's selectors are looking towards continuity.

"It's a wonderful opportunity for Mark this summer," Atherton said, "and we hope he can take it. His selection is part of the progression as well as the continuity and it's good to see nine of the players who helped win the two Tests in New Zealand still involved. It's the way it should be.

"We now have a responsibility and a good opportunity to put cricket in the forefront of people's minds. Hopefully we can do it for the right reasons.''

But if Atherton and his team are floating on a raft of confidence at the moment, then Taylor - given all the personal criticism he has been through - ought to resemble one of those clinging to life in Gericault's painting the "The Wreck of the Medusa."

That he does not shows the remarkable resilience of the man, though it is doubtful, as he himself admits, whether he would still be captain if his team had lost rather than won the big games over the past six months.

"I've tried to look at everything objectively," he said, talking about his poor run of form with the bat and the near hysterical cries from former Test captains for him to fall on his sword. "But there is more to captaining Australia than opening the innings.''

There is also a lot more to Australia than their captain's sketchy form. But while there are those - mainly Australians - who subscribe to the view that players like Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath are only cruising at the moment, understating your hand is not an Aussie trait and they never steal when they can plunder.

Mind you, it may not be long before their batsmen do just that and all the top six, bar Taylor, have played significant innings in the last 10 days. The only doubt appears to be over Greg Blewett, who, providing he passes a fitness test on his knee, will bat at No 3.

To be competitive, England need to play the series around totals of 300. If Australia put big scores on the board which allow Warne and Bevan to bowl with men around the bat, there is only likely to be one long-term winner.

For that reason, pitches are important and none more so than the first one here at Edgbaston. Unsurprisingly, for a venue that has produced some fiery surfaces in the past, the pitch spent most of yesterday being shielded from the sun.

It neither looks as patchy, as cracked or as quick as the lethal surface used against the West Indies here two years ago, though it is still fairly well grassed. Whoever wins the toss will have to weigh up whether it is easier to bat while there is early seam movement or when there is variable bounce later in the match.

Whatever is decided, Warwickshire will be hoping that the match requires a full fourth day's play. So far the first three days are completely sold out, with 12,000 advanced tickets already gone for Sunday. That translates into receipts of over a pounds 1.5m, a far cry from the pounds 38,000 taken here in 1978 when Cornhill first got involved in Test match sponsorship.

The involvement has proved beneficial for them as well as English cricket, and they yesterday announced a new three year deal worth pounds 9m. It will be the bargain of the decade should England clinch the Ashes.

ENGLAND (from): M A Atherton (capt), M A Butcher, A J Stewart (wkt), G P Thorpe, N Hussain, J P Crawley, M A Ealham, A J Hollioake, R D B Croft, D Gough, A R Caddick, D E Malcolm.

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