Cricket: England find the steel for rebuilding: Passion play at The Oval augurs well for tour of Australia. Martin Johnson reflects on the summer's unlikely moment of catharsis

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IT IS eight years since Mike Gatting's still-to-turn-grey beard dripped with the champagne of the last successful Ashes mission, during which time a succession of England captains have correctly identified fire in the belly as the prime requirement for modern- day Test cricket.

However, while Australia's belly has subsequently burned with the ferocity of a bush fire, England's paunch has contained the equivalent of a couple of boy scouts vainly rubbing two bits of soggy wood together.

All the more remarkable, then, that what threatened to be another summer of brave new dawns sinking quietly below the chimney stacks in anticipation of another Arctic winter should have been ignited by less than one hour's cricket midway through the third and final Test match.

The assault launched on South Africa's bowlers by Darren Gough and Phillip DeFreitas on Friday evening at The Oval may have been a cathartic moment in English cricket's bid to finally get rid of its insipid inferiority complex. Seldom can a bowler with Allan Donald's reputation have been so thoroughly torn apart, and so completely did England's batsmen catch the mood (Graeme Hick in particular) that Donald's ludicrously sponsored visage did not so much resemble war paint as a man who has just been splattered between the eyes by a custard pie.

It is, therefore, ironic that at the moment England are discovering the strand of steel required to compete with Australia this winter, the International Cricket Council has apparently decided that Test cricket is some kind of recreational parlour game, and that anyone not kissing the umpire on both cheeks after being adjudged leg before to a ball that would not have struck another set of stumps, should be required to bend over and hand over all their pocket-money.

It should be said that cricketers have played their own part in being treated like schoolboys, in that they have all too often behaved like them, and it is a bit rich for Gatting to be touted as the most likely replacement in the event of a Michael Atherton resignation. If some of Gatting's touring sides had played under Peter Burge's jurisdiction, they would all be playing harmonicas at the bottom of Tube station escalators hoping for a few coins to be dropped into the hat.

Likewise, ever since Allan Border apparently began taking his drinks breaks from Dr Jekyll's test-tube, Australia's cricketers would have had to have been bound and gagged to remain solvent. In fact, if England have discovered an Australian-style aggression, and someone like Burge is in charge this winter, there will be so many suspensions that the final Test might boil down to a single- wicket competition.

Perhaps the biggest talking point of the entire summer is the way that the television cameras are now influencing Test cricket to a hitherto unparallelled degree. Previously, the close-up shot was only a worry to the spectator who has phoned in sick for a day off work, or is forgetfully nibbling an ear lobe attached to someone other than his wife. Nowadays, though, a cricketer only has to sneeze for the ref to launch a fierce investigation as to whether he has anything more sinister up his nose than traces of Vick's Sinex.

The evidence for Burge's swingeing fine on Atherton being vindictive is hardly weakened by the fact that the most obvious display of dissent of all came from DeFreitas on the opening day, when a leg-before appeal was turned down. Furthermore, having fined Atherton, Burge then had no option when Fanie De Villiers' reaction to something similar was the rough equivalent of Steve Davis scratching his head after the referee had replaced his ball for a deliberate miss.

In fact, ever since the dirt-in- the-pocket business at Lord's, clarity of judgement appears to have come a nasty cropper. If Atherton was a bit silly to stare at his bat, can someone tell me who on earth at the BBC decided that Allan Lamb was the man to interview (and call for Atherton's resignation) on Saturday morning radio? Allan Lamb? Ye gods. Apart from credentials extending to losing all three Tests in which he captained England, and being notoriously opinionated, Lamb had as much relevance to the argument as the Queen of Sheba, or Jonathan Agnew's mum.

Atherton has also been slightly disorientated by events, in that when Agnew interviewed him on Sunday about remaining as captain, he banged on about having been hurt by the newspapers, with no mention of the fact that he was addressing someone who practically ordered him to resign after Lord's.

When he was appointed last September, Atherton would have sold his house for the job. Now, with all these fines, he may have to, and the sparkle in his eyes 11 months ago has now been replaced by a dull, glazed look, like a three- day-old mackerel on the fishmonger's slab.

However, in the 24 hours he has left to declare his availability as captain in Australia, Atherton will surely conclude that far from being a burden on his team, his team will be the poorer without him, either as a captain or a batsman. Besides which, now that his team really look like a team again, the personal wounds may heal more quickly than he thinks.

The mere prospect of throwing the ball to Devon Malcolm in Perth, which is even bouncier than The Oval, should be enough in itself to persuade him to stay on, although the biggest single bonus for England this summer has been Hick. A shy, modest man, Hick has finally discovered the ruthless, slightly arrogant streak required to succeed at this level, and there is not much doubt that Raymond Illingworth has been the cattle prod behind it.

Illingworth's first summer in charge ended in such a way that the chairman's post-series claim that the return of the Ashes was no longer a fantasy has real substance. However, he is above all a practical man, and, unlike previous incumbents, when Raymond gazes as the stars, he is not so much looking to locate Venus as wonder whether it's OK to plant the radishes.

'Let's be right about it,' he said on Sunday, 'county cricket is at a pretty low ebb. Frankly, we have not got too many players to choose from. One of the main problems is pitches, and there are more games finishing in two days now than there ever were.

'The Board will decide where the money goes, but they might consider employing their own groundsmen at county level. Also, we play too much soft cricket, and I have long been in favour of two divisions in the Championship.

'Also, there is a lot of talk about bowlers bowling too much nowadays. To my mind they don't bowl enough. You need to bowl a lot to get the rhythm right, and we saw what happened with Devon Malcolm at The Oval.'

Illingworth's immediate task, however, is to persuade Atherton to remain as captain, and it is short odds that he will manage it. 'He has shown tremendous character for a 26-year-old, and while Michael has made mistakes, he's learning all the time.'

As for Atherton's latest punishment, Illingworth says: 'If football's Premiership was run on the same lines, there would be no one left on the field by half-time. We have got to allow a bit of what happens in the split second after a dismissal. We don't want all the aggression taken out of what is an emotional game.'

Even Illy gets emotional, and when he was captain in Australia, in 1971-72, he led his team from the field in a crowd-disturbance protest. Furthermore, if Atherton does resign, the chairman could go as captain. It would be a rare achievement indeed for anyone - let alone an ICC ref - to get close to Raymond's wallet.

(Photograph omitted)