Cricket: Australian reign at risk from weather: Igglesden first casualty

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ANOTHER chapter in international cricket's most ancient conflict gets under way here today, and Australia can consider themselves warned. Manchester's smog readings are slightly down on Calcutta's, no one spent last night guzzling prawns in a Chinese restaurant, and England's 12 men and true have all been issued with complimentary razor blades.

The one small snag, however, is that once we have eliminated the chairman's bumper book of excuses (if Graham Gooch was to drop it on his foot, he would not be running too many half-marathons for a while) we are left, on current form, with an excuse for a cricket team. England have not won a single-tourist series at home since the Australians were here in 1985. They have lost their last five consecutive Test matches and their drought against this particular opposition stretches back to 1986, when Mike Gatting's team retained the Ashes in Melbourne. Since then, Australia's record against England stands at won eight, drawn five, lost 0.

On the face it, England's best chance would have been to schedule the entire series for Old Trafford, and hope for Manchester's skies to do their patriotic bit and chuck it down for 30 days. However, the Pommie towel that our Australian friends perceive to be perpetually dry has not yet been thrown in, and if there is an element of having raided Mother Hubbard's cupboard about England's bowling line-up, the selectors are at least giving it a go with some fresh faces for a change.

One not so fresh face, however, will be that of Phillip DeFreitas, who has hokey- cokeyed his way in and out of the England team more times than Gooch has had opening partners. The Lancashire seamer is almost certain to replace Kent's Alan Igglesden, who (48 hours after Ted Dexter announced that he would be presiding over a 'no chopping and changing' policy this summer) strained his groin during pre-net warm-up exercises yesterday.

As omens go, it is not a very good one. Selection for England during the 1989 Ashes debacle was a near guarantee of bodily malfunction before match day, and not once in six Tests did the originally selected 12 survive until the morning of the match. Ironically, Igglesden was the last of a catalogue of late replacements during that summer, when he made his only Test appearance at The Oval, and took England's number of selections for the series to a record 31.

Igglesden had been earmarked to take the new ball with Andy Caddick, although given the fact that England's selectors are giving the impression that they have never met before, never mind picked the team, who can say whether that task now falls to DeFreitas. Gooch wanted Alec Stewart to open and not keep wicket - he now keeps wicket and bats at No 6 - while Keith Fletcher stated that Robin Smith would bat at No 3. Smith is now No 4, with Mike Gatting at first wicket down.

First wicket down, for the batting side, may not be unadjacent to 11.01am given the condition of the Old Trafford pitch, which has little prospect of starting life as anything other than sopping wet. With magnificent foresight, a coloured-clothing slog was played here on Sunday, and when Manchester let rip with one of its monsoons, the bounciest Test pitch in the country was left with the consistency of a suet pudding.

Gooch thinks it will take at least a couple of days to dry out, and if the sun does shine, it could even turn out to be an old- fashioned sticky dog. We will have to wait until 10.30 this morning to find out whether both sides will play two specialist spinners, although Australia have already sorted out their batting line-up. Michael Slater gets in ahead of Matthew Hayden as Mark Taylor's opening partner, and Mark Waugh is preferred to Damien Martyn at No 5.

England were yesterday being quoted at 5-1 against for this game, which is a bit of a nonsense even allowing for their recent record, and the prognosis for the series is not all doom and gloom. If Australia look to have the stronger batting, it is only marginal, and should anything happen to Craig McDermott, it would not be way off beam to describe their attack as thin.

Thin is not a word that could be applied to Merv Hughes, and it is Australia's new-ball pairing that probably holds the key to this series. It might sound daft to compare them with Lillee and Thomson ('Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust, if Hughes Don't Get You, McDermott Must' does not quite have the same ring to it) but in the matches in which they have been paired together, Lillee and Thomson took 217 wickets in 26 Tests (at 27 runs apiece) while Hughes and McDermott have taken 219 in 25 (average 26).

There will be butterflies in both dressing-rooms and the fact that we are not about to embark on a friendly was brought home to Smith during the 1989 Test at Trent Bridge, when he asked Allan Border if he could have a glass of water sent out. 'What do you think this is?' inquired Border. 'An effing tea party?'

The fast men collide, page 38

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