Cricket: Atherton wears the peacemaker's hat

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The Independent Online
There will be universal rejoicing when this tour finally begins in the early hours of tonight, British time. The pipe- opener against the Australian Cricket Board Chairman's XI might be little more than a bit of fun against a bunch of has- beens, but it should at least provide relief from a war that has been so phoney as to be downright fraudulent.

Accusations, claims and boasts have pinged between Perth and Pakistan at a truly staggering rate. The gist is that England, proclaiming a new- found steel and self-belief, will refuse to submit to Australian verbal harassment on the field and are capable of intimidation of their own, principally of the fast-bowling variety through Devon Malcolm, Martin McCague and Darren Gough.

Australia, still almost three weeks away from returning from their business against Waqar, Wasim and friends, are somewhat peeved at England's attempt to gain the psychological high ground. They have bitten back. The words of their coach, Bobby Simpson, are typical: 'I think England have to build up their own confidence in some form. It's very big talk. As far as we're concerned, they can say what they like and we'll just go along and nail them.' Simpson joins a cast list of verbal jousters which also includes Michael Atherton, Steve Waugh, Malcolm, Keith Fletcher and Peter Burge.

Atherton was yesterday playing the role of the innocent. 'I've been a little surprised by the reaction since our arrival,' the captain said. 'All the Australians seem interested in is talking about sledging. It's not our intention to enter into a war of words - at the end of the day it's how well you play, not how much you talk. And I don't think we've been guilty of talking ourselves up or sending any flash messages to Pakistan. I prefer a quiet build-up. I want to concentrate on taking part in a great series, rather than the less savoury aspects of the game.'

Atherton's attempt at some form of disarmament comes as he and his players prepare to face four men who virtually invented the word sledging. Dennis Lillee, Jeff Thomson, Greg Chappell and Rod Marsh might be has-beens now - only Thomson has yet to reach 45 - but what giants they were.

Lillee was perhaps the most complete fast bowler of all time, Thomson arguably the fastest; Chappell was the supreme stylist with the bat and Marsh made more dismissals than any man in Test history. Their presence will guarantee a slight carnival feel to the match at Lilac Hill, around 30 minutes' drive from here, but Tom Moody, Brendon Julian and Damien Martyn will make sure it is a serious contest.

England understand the need to slip instantly into wining mode and unforeseen danger often lurks. It was in the opening week of the tour four years ago that Graham Gooch, attempting to hold a return catch in a practice match, split his hand. The wound became poisoned and, according to which report you read at the time, Gooch went close to losing his finger/hand/life. Fortunately, he kept all three.

Marsh now runs the Australian Cricket Academy in Adelaide, which has produced an enviable stream of talent. Shane Warne, Michael Slater and Michael Bevan are just some of his former pupils. Marsh was upset when McCague and Craig White, into whom the Academy invested so much time and money, chose their country of birth rather than their country of learning.

He is supporting steps for cricketers at under-19 level to sign an undertaking that will tie them to Australia for, say, five years.

Marsh has back-tracked on his description last year of English bowlers as 'pie throwers'. He says he meant just county bowlers. He also says players should have a purity of tongue he did not always show: 'Cricket must be fun.

It would be a shame if chat went out of the game, but it must never become abusive.'

The wicketkeeper Ian Healy says he will be fit for the first Test against England on 25 November, despite returning home from Pakistan with a broken thumb. He is being replaced by Phil Emery, the New South Wales captain.