Cricket: Atherton's men on diet of mental fibre: Headingley's recent history suggests a result is likely in the second Test against South Africa starting today

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THE fact that England's grubby Test-match record is considerably more in need of a trip to the laundrette than the captain's trousers has rather got lost in the wash since Lord's. But full marks to the selectors, who have lost no time in getting straight to the hub of the problem - whiskers.

The only unfamiliar action Michael Atherton stands accused of this week is having a shave. This is by order of Ray Illingworth, who has, as it were, thrown the bathroom sink at him. Raymond is a canny operator, and this will certainly preclude - should Allan Donald fizz a bouncer past his chin - any accusation that Atherton is scuffing up one side of the ball with his bristles. However, quite what it has to do with England attempting beat to South Africa at Headingley over the next five days is not immediately apparent.

It will certainly be a case of unfamiliar action if England win this series. Since the Headingley miracle of 1981, England have conceded a 1-0 lead to the opposition in no less than 18 series, and only once (when they rallied to win in India in the mid-Eighties) have they subsequently managed to avoid defeat.

Lord's was such a debacle that a reader wrote in suggesting a trophy for England-South Africa series along the same lines as the Ashes. Quite what form this could take he was not sure, but maybe the captain's trousers would provide a suitable article for ceremonial incineration. The Rev Andrew Wingfield-Digby could then be recalled to scatter the remains in the footholds, and intone the appropriate words: 'Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.'

For the moment, though, the selectors have made do with recalling Graham Thorpe and Phil Tufnell, worthy choices both, although there is disturbing evidence these days that it is not so much a change of personnel England need as the mental fibre to compete as fiercely and collectively as most of their opponents appear able to do.

This has a good deal to do with the domestic system, with its emphasis based squarely around giving a lot of ordinary players a handy living. Even making allowances for Brian Lara, the fact that Warwickshire could conceivably pull off the grand slam without contributing a single player to the national side is a comment in itself on the general mediocrity of county cricket.

Neither can there be too much confidence in selectorial thought processes after discovering how they now intend to fiddle around with the batting order. The restoration of Atherton and Graham Gooch to open the batting is a logic which ought to have applied (once it was decided that Gooch would play) since the start of the summer, and the overdue left-hander, Thorpe, is well placed at No 4.

However, to relegate Alec Stewart all the way down to No 5, and move Graeme Hick up to No 3, takes a good deal more swallowing than the Atherton pocket guide to ball-drying. Hick certainly looked in good form at Lord's, and was clearly sawn off in the second innings, but if either of these two players deserves favourable treatment, it is not Hick. They might as well have thrown Stewart the wicketkeeping gloves at the same time.

Atherton, who described Stewart as 'disappointed', was unusually subdued at yesterday's press conference, and it may well be that, in the aftermath of Lord's, his views on both selection and batting order were canvassed with something less than enthusiasm by his chairman.

As for his own frame of mind, Atherton said that he felt fine, and that the team had 'closed ranks behind him'. However, he will not be able to scratch an ear-lobe for the next five days without it being the focus for a hundred camera shutters, and once the Yorkshire crowd has applied sufficient lubrication to its tonsils, the combination of the Lord's affair and Atherton's Lancastrian connections may prove an irresistible target.

Two decisions England will face this morning are what to do if they win the toss, and whether to play a specialist spinner. The last such creature to take a Test wicket for England here was Phil Edmonds in 1987, although Atherton said yesterday that Phil Tufnell would play 'if I was a betting man'.

'Headingley is notoriously difficult to forecast,' Atherton said. 'It will start a little damp, but we'd have to be sure of taking seven or eight wickets in the day to insert.'

However, if England play as they did at Lord's, it will not really matter. There, the pitch was either a shirtfront or a minefield, depending entirely on whether it was England or South Africa batting at the time. The last 12 Headingley Tests have all produced results, with five wins to England, and seven to the opposition. If you want a bet on that margin being reduced to 6-7 by Monday, this morning's odds are 4-1.

ENGLAND (from): M A Atherton (capt), G A Gooch, G A Hick, G P Thorpe, A J Stewart, J P Crawley, S J Rhodes (wkt), P A J DeFreitas, D Gough, A R C Fraser, P C R Tufnell, J E Benjamin.

SOUTH AFRICA (probable): A C Hudson, G Kirsten, W J Cronje, K C Wessels (capt), P N Kirsten, J N Rhodes, B M McMillan, D J Richardson (wkt), C R Matthews, P S De Villiers, A A Donald.

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