Cricket: Back injury could rule Atherton out

Queensland 209 & 124 England 192 & 74-5
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The Independent Online
THE "STIFF" back which kept Michael Atherton from taking the field yesterday, during England's match against Queensland, is obviously causing concern. With just five days to go before the first Test, England have sent for Graeme Hick to cover for the England opener.

Hick, who will fly out this evening, is coming as reinforcement and will stay for as long as necessary, a point emphasised by the chairman of selectors, David Graveney. "Given the recurrence of the stiffness in Michael Atherton's back, and with the first two Tests looming, sending for cover in case of further injury worries to any of the other batsmen in the squad is the right and proper thing to do."

Atherton's spine has given him problems throughout his career. But if his fitness record has been remarkable, missing just one Test from the last 63, the inflammatory incidences that incapacitate him appear to be more frequent. Sending for Hick so soon is a fairly radical decision, and although Graveney claims there is no suggestion that Atherton will be forced out of the tour, the implication is that the problem is more serious than stiffness.

Watching the day's proceedings from the players' marquee, Atherton, along with everyone else, witnessed a remarkable transformation. After the slow grind of the first two days, the sudden clatter of wickets as an already lifeless pitch decided to turn into a rogue of low character.

Sporting cracks almost wide enough to catch a glimpse of Hades, even the most assured technicians were found wanting, as that most lethal of balls, the "grubber," took a heavy toll. Of the 17 wickets that fell, easily the most significant was that of Mark Butcher, who followed the two runs he scored in the first innings with a second-ball duck.

Poor Butcher, the only thing he has achieved in his last five visits to the crease, is to have got the sightscreen in position for the next man in. So far he has amassed a total of nine first-class runs. One less than the number of stitches he received in Perth after he ducked into a short ball.

It is a wretched run and England go into the first Test at the Gabba with a real dilemma. Do they, for instance, bow to the short-term solution of the form-book and pick John Crawley to open; or do they back Butcher, who looked highly competent against South Africa, and hope he comes good over the long haul? David Lloyd, the England coach, insists it will be the latter and that Butcher will open in Brisbane.

The Gabba pitch, along with the state of Atherton's back, will no doubt have a bearing on the final shape of the team. Although he has so far played down the tactic of playing seven batsmen and four seam bowlers, the tactic would allow Stewart to retain faith in Butcher. Indeed, problems only arise if the pitch is exceedingly flat or looks like taking spin, in which case it could be choice between Butcher and Crawley in order to accommodate a spinner.

Spin, despite claiming the odd wicket, has not really shaped this match. As the bounce has receded, and lbw and bowled have become the dominant mode of dismissal, the seam bowlers have tended to dominate.

Adam Dale, a decent medium-pacer, took 7 for 33, his best first-class figures, as England's first innings ended abruptly on 192, to give Queensland a first-innings lead of 17 runs.

Conceding a deficit obviously motivated England's bowlers. They responded immediately through Darren Gough, who had Martin Love lbw in his first over. Not long after, Gough clean bowled Stuart Law, his defences breached by a scuttler. Only Jimmy Maher, a neat left-hander, and Andrew Symonds, looked able to cope and the pair added 47 runs for the third wicket before Symonds fell to a bat pad catch off Croft.

Maher, who made 56, was sixth man out, his downfall coming when Dean Headley forced him to spoon one to gully. After that, only a last wicket stand of 21 inconvenienced England, as Queensland were bowled out for 124, and an overall lead of 141.

With Atherton unable to bat until the fifth wicket down, England, as they had done at Perth, again pressed Dominic Cork into service as an opener. After seeing Butcher succumb lbw to Andy Bichel, Cork bloomed and together with Nasser Hussain, played some of the best shots of the match.

Yet, just as the pair looked to have broken the back of England's target Mike Kasprowicz had Hussain lbw. If that was his first mistake, Stewart made one with his first ball and was lbw. It did not end there and Crawley, having kept out the hat-trick ball, had his stumps splayed soon after to give Kasprowicz a spell of 3 for 2 in five balls.

For once, Cork kept admirably calm throughout the mayhem and was continuing to play well when he was given out lbw for 36. If the dismissal was something of a hometown decision, it hit England hard, and Mark Ramprakash and Headley were forced to see out the remainder of the day.

Third day of four; England won toss

QUEENSLAND - First Innings 209 (G I Foley 71, I A Healy 57).

ENGLAND - First Innings

(Overnight: 182 for 7)

D G Cork c Kasprowicz b Dale 23

D Gough not out 7

D W Headley b Dale 3

A D Mullally c Symonds b Bichel 0

Extras (b1 lb7 w1 nb13) 22

Total (98.2 overs) 192

Fall (cont): 8-185 9-191.

Bowling: Kasprowicz 14-3-40-0; Dale 23-9-33-7; Foley 11-2-26-0; Bichel 17.2-4-43-2; Jackson 29-13-33-1; Maher 1-0-2-0; Symonds 3-0-7-0.

QUEENSLAND - Second Innings

J P Maher c Hussain b Headley 56

M L Love lbw b Gough 0

S G Law b Gough 7

A Symonds c Crawley b Croft 20

G I Foley lbw b Croft 1

*I A Healy c Stewart b Mullally 5

A J Bichel b Cork 6

M S Kasprowicz b Gough 18

P W Jackson lbw b Cork 0

A C Dale not out 7

M L Hayden absent 0

Extras (lb4) 4

Total (54.2 overs) 124

Fall: 1-1 2-9 3-56 4-62 5-85 6-99 7-103 8-103, 9-124.

Bowling: Gough 11.2-3-29-3; Cork 9-4-13-2; Mullally 13-5-21-1; Headley 11-1-30-1; Croft 10-2-27-2.

ENGLAND - Second Innings

M A Butcher lbw b Bichel 0

D G Cork lbw b Dale 36

N Hussain lbw b Kasprowicz 24

*A J Stewart lbw b Kasprowicz 0

J P Crawley b Kasprowicz 4

M R Ramprakash not out 4

D W Headley not out 0

Extras (lb6) 6

Total (for 5, 25 overs) 74

Fall: 1-0 2-43 3-43 4-51 5-74.

To bat: M A Atherton, R D B Croft, D Gough, A D Mullally.

Bowling (to date): Bichel 6-0-25-1; Dale 5-2-10-1; Kasprowicz 7-1-14- 3; Jackson 7-1-19-0.

Umpires: A J McQuillan and S J Tausel.