Cricket: Atherton's slip undermines England's fight: Opener's unlucky run-out leaves Gatting and Hick facing uphill struggle to salvage a draw with Australia on a still benign batting wicket

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Australia 632-4 dec

England 205 and 237-3

CONFIDENCE is not exactly running at Nelsonian levels at the moment ('England expects . . . but not too much') and that glorious result occasionally associated with an England cricket team - a draw - may have disappeared in one tragically bizarre moment yesterday.

The last Englishman to be run out for 99 in a Test match was Graham Gooch in Melbourne 13 years ago, until, that is, Mike Atherton, one of the runners for Gooch's job, suffered the same fate in the company of another one, Mike Gatting, 40 minutes after tea in yesterday's second Test.

England, faced with the prospect of batting for the best part of two days to avoid losing their seventh consecutive Test match, were looking as though they might have all but one of their second-innings wickets in hand this morning when Atherton, on 97, clipped a ball from Allan Border away towards the square- leg boundary.

It was a comfortable two, but with both batsmen starting for the third, Gatting thought better of it when he saw the ball in Merv Hughes's hands, and he invited Atherton to return to his crease. This Atherton would have accomplished, particularly as Hughes's throw was well wide of the stumps, but the Lancashire opener went down on an imaginary banana skin as he attempted to turn, and he was four yards short and on all fours when Ian Healy broke the stumps.

Shortly afterwards, Robin Smith was out for the fourth time in the series to a spinner - athletically caught at short leg off Tim May by the substitute fielder for Craig McDermott, Matthew Hayden - and while England are not completely without hope of escaping today on a pitch still perfectly good for batting, the bad luck that habitually follows teams indulging in bad play has significantly lowered their chances.

At the time, Atherton and Gatting had been in residence for two and a half hours, and Australia, for the first time in this series, were showing distinct signs of rattiness. Atherton, in particular, raised their hackles when Mark Waugh claimed a bat-pad catch off May shortly before lunch, and was subsequently engaged in regular bouts of close-quarter conversation that had little to do with invitations to dinner.

Atherton, of course, should have adopted the gentlemanly approach. 'Did you think I hit that one then, Mark? Ah, you did. OK, terribly sorry for not adopting the Australian code of conduct on these occasions, I'll be away to the pavilion then.'

His main adversary, however, was Hughes, who gave him a fearful earful when Atherton pulled him for four, and Hughes's humour was not improved when a misdirected bouncer two balls later was deflected into the fielding helmet behind Healy, thereby adding five byes to the total.

Atherton deserved a century every bit as much as he had in the first innings, when he was again unlucky to play on to Shane Warne, and he clearly went into this Test match determined on a much more positive approach. Atherton has invariably been the silent partner in his impressive statistical liaisons with Gooch, but on both occasions here he has put bat to ball with much greater fluency than his captain.

He more or less took on Australia by himself on Saturday, when England's batting graph continued its progress towards the earth's core. Gatting, Smith, Graeme Hick and Chris Lewis all went to shots that were worthy of 'We'll ring you' messages from the selectors, and Smith's dismissal was the result of a long-distance conversation over a walkie-talkie. The television evidence that did for Smith, and later worked the other way for Neil Foster, went some way towards vindicating the use of modern technology, although with Foster apparently being given out caught off his boot, and Alec Stewart getting a bad lbw, there are now the inevitable calls for its scope to be widened.

This is highly dangerous, not least because it is almost impossible to judge bat-pad catches off the television, and there are so many appeals nowadays that the game would go on until nightfall. Those who thought that Chris Broad declining to leave the field in Lahore in 1987 might have taken an interminable time ought to know that was 30 seconds, compared to the one minute 25 seconds required for Smith's adjudication on Saturday.

The time that England had to bat when they went in again yesterday morning, 427 runs adrift, was a shade over 11 hours, and their average of 25 runs per wicket (compared to the opposition's 70) during their long losing sequence did not inspire much confidence.

England's first innings, in fact, had not even ended when the sponsors' representative trotted up to the press box to issue a list of England's innings defeats in Test matches, and the Ladbrokes man waved a sheet of paper with 1-9 scribbled against Australia to win.

This morning, this has shrunk to 1-2, which at least reflects the fact that England have decided, somewhat belatedly, to take part in this series. Atherton and Gooch put on 71 before Gooch edged a perfectly pitched leg break from Warne to Healy, and Gatting and Hick have so far put on 57 for the fourth wicket to cut the deficit to 190.

It is difficult to explain quite how Gatting (who has now played in 22 consecutive Tests without being on the winning side) is still there, in that only the presence of Smith has prevented him from looking more like England's worst player of spin rather than, as was thought until recently, their best. The jaw, which Hughes will doubtless be doing his best to hit today, is still jutting, but England remain a long way from harbour.

(Photograph omitted)

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