Cricket: England face confusing options

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THE MELBOURNE Cricket Ground on Boxing Day can be a daunting place for any visiting team let alone one still tasting the remnants of numbing defeat as England must be. Christmas may be the season of goodwill to all men, but in Australia that does not extend as far as the England cricket team, who go into this fourth Test as rank outsiders. If Christmas cannot come too soon for some, it certainly has for England who need nothing less than a win to stay in the series.

With morale already low after conceding a 2-0 deficit in the Test series a humiliating nine-wicket defeat, coming just before a watershed Test match, was less than ideal. Speaking on the subject for the first time, the captain, Alec Stewart, echoed the scathing views previously given by the team manager, Graham Gooch.

"It was probably our worst performance overseas since a certain Saturday in Sydney, eight years ago," he said. "I can accept that people can play badly, but I can't accept a poor approach.

"Playing for England, or anyone for that matter, you just don't go through the motions. We shall be sitting down and having a frank and open discussion about it before practice. After we've done that we'll look forward to the Test."

Whatever the soul searching achieves, Stewart is probably fortunate that six of the side likely to play on Saturday, were not involved in Hobart. Having half a team tarnished merely by association rather than deed will undoubtedly help speed the healing process.

That said, England will probably not name a team until after their fielding practice on Christmas Day. According to Alec Stewart the make-up of the side is likely to comprise of six batsmen and five bowlers, the option of seven batters having "not really worked".

If it sounds daring, playing six batsmen and five front-line bowlers was surely why Stewart donned the gloves in the first place. Whether it be down to Australia's all-round mastery or the self-inflicted doubt of their opponents, England's confusion appears to have come full circle and no one will be quite sure until 11 men walk out in front of the 80,000- strong crowd that is expected on the first day.

Even now, the "sensible" option of Stewart dispensing with the gloves and opening - rumoured in Hobart but initially rebuffed here - has not entirely been rejected. Mind you, if there is a one thing the selectors like even less than losing, it is admitting they are wrong and all signs are that Stewart will keep the gloves, but drop down a place in the batting order to five.

With Graeme Hick one of six centurions in the last match, the top six batsmen pick themselves. The bowling is less certain and unless Robert Croft has come back into the reckoning the three bowlers rested in Tasmania - Darren Gough, Alan Mullally and Dean Headley - are the only ones certain to play. Which leaves two to be picked from those that conceded 376 for 1 in 55.2 overs against an Australian XI.

It is not an easy task and the loss in Hobart has tended to cloud matters rather than elucidate them. Unless you forgive Alex Tudor, Peter Such, Dominic Cork and Angus Fraser for their lack of penetration and wasteful ways, the final two bowling places might just as well be pulled from Santa's sack.

Unless the pitch, in Stewart's words, is "something out of the ordinary", Tudor and Such, both having performed well in their single Test outings so far, are favourites to complete the quintet.

When things become arbitrary, morale - and how to lift it - becomes an overriding pre-occupation. Fortunately not everyone will have been affected and if anyone can put some Christmas cheer into England's gloomy festive season it ought to be Gough.

In many ways Gough, with his good nature and bonhomie, is a natural Father Christmas, which probably means he will never quite make it to the highest echelons of fast bowling. Let's face it, one cannot quite see Glenn McGrath getting along as well with the children as our Darren, who has already donned the white beard and red suit for the kiddies of Hobart.

There is a general consensus, from both camps, that Gough has been unlucky this series, having regularly beaten the bat and had several catches missed. Indeed, before the first innings in Adelaide he had had more catches dropped (six) than wickets taken (five). But if the deficit was improved there another three chances still went begging.

But is it simply luck, or does Gough lack the guile to be truly great? Physically, he is less than ideal being just under six foot. The best Test batsmen tend to get out by edging full-length balls to either the keeper or slips. For that reason the ball needs to carry through to them, preferably between chest and knee high.

England's slips may have been guilty of standing too deep on occasions but edges from Gough, a skiddy bowler, rarely carry comfortably and the ones that have been dropped have tended to be those that have only just carried. Gough has a low arm and a high character. Fast bowling generally demands that they are the other way around.

Gough, as he has done throughout his career, has borne his misfortune lightly, or at least he did until he became the culprit, dropping a fairly easy catch at long leg in Perth.

Normally, his ebullience has helped England ride their gloomier moments. Yet since that mistake, he has been noticeably less animated. No wonder the Aussies are cock-a-hoop. If they can get to a character as naturally upbeat as Gough, intimidating the others will have been a doddle.

While England's catching has contributed heavily to Gough's relatively low tally of wickets (10), the lack of runs from his bat has been of his own doing. Four years ago in Australia, he slammed a defiant half-century at Sydney. That now seems like a mirage and he has failed to pass 20 in his last 20 Tests.

Apart from a lack of confidence, his problem appears to be one of balance, the Yorkshireman having problems shifting his weight on to either front foot or back. You can get away with being in limbo against Durham or Sussex, but not against McGrath or Stuart MacGill, at least not for long enough to make a significant contribution.

If six batsmen are to get enough runs for the bowlers to be able to apply real pressure on Australia, someone in the bottom five will have to stay with one of them. If Gough wants more wickets, scoring some runs may be as important as others taking their catches.

Australia have called the Western Australian fast bowler, Matt Nicholson, into their squad for the fourth Test following the withdrawal of Jason Gillespie with a knee injury. Nicholson has enjoyed a resurgence this season after struggling last year with an illness which left him feeling permanently tired. He claimed 7 for 77 and scored an unbeaten half-century against England for his state in the drawn tour match at the WACA last month.