Cricket: Cairns the destroyer takes heroic role

Stephen Fay at The Oval sees a favourite son claim birthright
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WHEN GRAHAM THORPE hit his first ball from Chris Cairns for four in the Second Test at Lord's, he called out to Cairns: "You're playing with the big boys now." Yesterday there was only one big boy, and that was Chris Cairns. For his part, Thorpe announced last night that he would not be going on England's winter tour to South Africa. A score approaching 100 in an England win today would represent a melancholy goodbye. Thorpe may be in the mood for it; he was having words with New Zealand's bowlers again yesterday.

Having already taken 5 for 31, no less, in England's first innings, Cairns's noble 80 off 94 balls was as heroic as anything in a comic book, and he received a standing ovation from the crowd who had been watching a game that had as many false climaxes as a melodramatic soap opera.

When Andrew Caddick sent Adam Parore's middle stump toppling, Cairns came to the wicket with New Zealand at 39 for 6. "The situation required me to be positive," Cairns said. Phil Tufnell might choose an expletive to help describe Cairns' innings. He was hit four times for six into the pavilion or its environs. "I tend to get itchy feet against the spinners," he explained. When he was out, the score was 149, and New Zealand were in with a chance.

Cairns is good casting. He is 29, tall, with brown curly hair, and a fine straight nose. And broody (he left a New Zealand tour of the West Indies feigning injury and played for Nottinghamshire the following week. He is abrasive - as Thorpe discovered at Lord's - and he is the scion of a cricketing dynasty (his father, Lance, was a regular for New Zealand).

He is also a realist. At the close of play, he was asked whether this was his best Test innings. "I'll tell you tomorrow," he said. Here is a cricketer whose innings really count only if he is on the winning side. He is conscious of the need to get Michael Atherton's wicket, and thinks that the ball will go through the top at some stage. "I don't think you are ever in on it," said the New Zealand all-rounder. (Andy Cadddick, on the other hand, declares that the wicket is getting easier.)

Cairns gave the spectators cause to remember yesterday, and they warmed to him. But they had had an absorbing day. After the fall of New Zealand's seventh wicket, when Alan Mullally snuffed out a mini-recovery by trapping Craig McMillan lbw, a group in the Peter May stand began to chant "Stand up if you hate Man U." There were a couple of repeats. The chant has become an English crowds' way of expressing joy.

Poor England performances might weary Mancunians, but they do not yet deter spectators in London. The Oval was full to its 18,500 capacity. At the start of the day, when England's tail was giving up the ghost, the cheers were heavily ironic, but when the game began to turn England's way before lunch, you could hear the mood change.

As Caddick ran in the crowd's shout grew in intensity, turning into a sigh as the ball flew past the edge of Cairns's bat to Alec Stewart. Had the crowd known that Cairns was about the play an innings that may have a decisive influence on the match, the sigh would have lasted much longer

But we had been reminded that if you give an English crowd something to cheer, they will show a deep thirst for success and a remarkable tolerance of failure - in London anyway. (Yesterday was the second sell-out, and ticket sales for this Oval Test are 10 per cent above budget.) But England's fightback, and the crowd's delight it it, should not obscure the malaise in this England team, which has allowed their opponents to recover twice and saw them trail by 83 runs on first innings.

In the rooms where the selectors and their advisers come and go, they were talking yesterday about Graham Thorpe and Alec Stewart. Both were playing on their home ground - though not in front of a home crowd, because no more than 10 per cent of them would ever bother to attend a county game. This appearance could prove to be Stewart's adieu; it looks like being Thorpe's too.

Of course, if the pair of them bat their way through to 246, all the speculation - especially over Thorpe - will begin all over again.