Cricket: Australians' red faces may conceal a red mist

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The Independent Online
THE TIMING, particularly for a man of Mark Waugh's silky skills in that area, could not have come at a worse time for Australia and their Cricket Board, particularly after their "holier than thou" stance on the match-fixing inquiry currently going on in Pakistan. England may be trailing in cricketing terms in this Ashes series, but they are at least winning the moral high ground.

Revelations about cricketers always seem to shock the public more than those in other sports and, coming as these did on the eve of an Ashes Test, merely heighten the indignation. Sadly for the third Test in Adelaide and the team that wins it, the sleaze element is almost certain to outweigh the cricket.

Unlike Waugh and Shane Warne, who was flown in specially to make his statement, Alec Stewart - after playing and missing a few times to questions beyond both his remit and common sense to answer - was able to keep his eye firmly on the ball at the press conference.

In truth, he probably enjoyed himself a bit too. During his Test career, England have been on the back foot against Australia and seeing two of their top players, as well as the ACB, squirm in front of a media intent on feeding long and hard, doubtless gave him a small feeling of satisfaction.

"All this won't affect us at all," Stewart, for once the warm-up act at the press conference rather than the main attraction, said. "We'll be trying to win, which is just the way we'd treat any other Test match and our preparation will not change."

What may alter though, is the final make-up of the team. If Stewart came to Adelaide with a fixed plan in mind, the nature of the pitch could well bring modifications.

The last two days have seen temperatures soar to 38C and the pavements in downtown Adelaide were hot enough to fry an egg on. To combat the drying effect of such heat, the groundsman has liberally applied the hosepipe, presumably in a bid to stop the pitch from disintegrating too early. Under water on Wednesday when England netted, the pitch will have changed in character totally by the time Stewart tosses up tomorrow.

"I've already offered Warne two beers to tell me what the pitch will do," Stewart joked. "Because of the soaking the groundsman has given it we'll probably delay naming our side until the morning of the match."

With Graham Thorpe now departed, Graeme Hick is a certainty to play, though whether it is at six or seven depends if England's preferred bowling attack is four or five-pronged. If it is the former, John Crawley, despite looking hopelessly out of touch, will also be included.

As long as temperatures remain high, a spinner who can bowl long, tidy spells will be crucial. On the evidence of the Victoria game such a bowler was not easy to discern, and England would perhaps do as well to share the job between Hick and Mark Ramprakash, rather than bring in a so-called specialist like Robert Croft.

If clues can be gained from player-watching, Hick, an absentee from the bowling roster in Melbourne, has at least been turning his arm over in the nets. At worst, Hick can do a job, something Dominic Cork, laid low with flu on Wednesday, may not be able to manage. Cork has not bowled consistently so far and England will probably replace him with Dean Headley, who looked spirited against Victoria.

"If we decide to play four bowlers," Stewart revealed without a hint of irony, "they will be our best four, irrespective of balance. If we decide on five, we'll go for a balanced attack and include a spinner."

Unless Mark Waugh withdraws voluntarily Australia have their XI already set in stone. Although Waugh has had four years to get over his foolishness, the public dimension will be unsettling and both he and Warne looked jittery as they read out their respective statements.

In some ways it is down to a question of whose morale is most affected - England's, after losing the last Test in two and a half days; or Australia's, following the revelations.

Stewart, always the first to try and allay fear, is adamant that England have forgotten about Perth. "We've lost before and come back to win," he retorted. "What happened in Perth is in the past. I just hope we learn from it. We're looking to play good cricket, compete hard, and hopefully beat Australia."

There is a danger that the furore may motivate Australia's tight unit even more than usual, though, mostly, the players will be angry at having their high reputation soiled by association.

However, it could just be that instead of facing a team reeling under public scrutiny, England will meet a side determined to be remembered for their fine cricket rather than an episode of sleaze.

ENGLAND (from): M A Atherton (Lancashire), M A Butcher (Surrey), N Hussain (Essex), *A J Stewart (Surrey), J P Crawley (Lancashire), M R Ramprakash (Middlesex), G A Hick (Worcestershire), D G Cork (Derbyshire), R D B Croft (Glamorgan), D Gough (Yorkshire), A D Mullally (Leicestershire), A J Tudor (Surrey), D W Headley (Kent).

AUSTRALIA (from): *M A Taylor, M J Slater, J L Langer, M E Waugh, S R Waugh, R T Ponting, I A Healy or A C Gilchrist, D W Fleming, C R Miller, G D McGrath, S C G MacGill.

Umpires: S J Davis (Aus) and S A Bucknor (WI).