Cricket: England hamstrung as the fickle finger strikes again

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The Pope has been in Australia for the past couple of days, but unfortunately had too rigid an itinerary to squeeze in a quick visit to England's cricket team for a restorative laying-on of hands. Yesterday, the catalogue of injuries reached belly -laughproportions when the most overworked member of the squad, the physiotherapist, broke a finger during fielding practice.

Dave Roberts, who was called upon to make up the numbers because of a personnel shortage, and had previously been pressed into fielding service when England ran out of players during a match in Toowoomba, was hoping it would be nothing worse than bad bruising, but an X-ray in Bendigo confirmed the fracture. Roberts was a strong tip to open the batting in the fourth Test match in Adelaide starting on Thursday (on the grounds that he has run out of Elastopast and has nothing else to do, and anyway is in better form than Graham Gooch) but has now, sadly, had to rule himself out.

Including Roberts, England have now had had 22 players on the field since leaving home with 16 in October, and have had so many X-rays that they also represent a health hazard to others in terms of radioactive fall-out. Nowadays, people tend to telephonethe dressing room for injury bulletins rather than make personal visits.

Shaun Udal has joined Martin McCague, Craig White and Darren Gough on the list of early returnees to England, having sustained a similar side strain to the one that ended White's tour. In addition, Neil Fairbrother's shoulder injury prevented him from playing in today's game against Victoria here, which will make it difficult for England to consider him for the Adelaide Test.

When England were first in Adelaide towards the start of the tour, the seven new tourists sat down together to construct the traditional variety sketch for the benefit of the rest of the team at the end of tour party. However, this has had to be cancelled as only three members of the Magnificent Seven have survived. Udal, White, Gough, and McCague are all in England, leaving John Crawley, Steven Rhodes and Joey Benjamin with three weeks in which to survive. As Benjamin has been sighted less often than Shergar on this tour, it could be argued that the surviving new boys are now down to two.

Meantime, with all hospital leave in Bendigo presumably having been cancelled, England have merged from their week-long rest to prepare for the final two Tests, while Australia remains in the throes of an animated argument about whether to ditch their experiment of fielding a reserve side in their annual one-day competition.

From England's point of view, however, it does not so much matter whether Australia and Australia A arrange to play each other three times a week, just so long as they keep it to themselves. Switching players from one side to another is just about as ludicrous an idea as Australian cricket has ever come up with, and England would be well advised to decline any further invitations to a private party.

Furthermore, as Australia are pruning their next tour to England down to three months from four, the Test and County Cricket Board should not only be making similar plans, but also insisting that on future tours here the Test matches and one-day internationals are separate entities as opposed to being strewn around like confetti.

There is, however, encouraging news that Test cricket in Australia is less in danger of being killed off by its bastard offspring than appeared to be the case some years ago. One-day cricket is still the opium of the masses here, but a sizeable proporition of junkies have also been weaned off it and back to the real thing, judging by the crowd figures.

The first three Ashes Tests have all produced substantially better attendances than on England's last visit in 1991, although the Brisbane figures are affected by the fact that the 1991 Test ended inside three days. At Melbourne this time, 144,000 peoplewatched (12 per cent up on four years ago) and in Sydney, the 126,000 aggregate audience represented a 15 per cent rise.

Advance sales for Adelaide next week are reported to be "very good", and quite apart from signifying that Test cricket is still alive and well in Australia, these figures also suggest that the Australian public has not yet grown tired of watching their team stuff the Poms. When they do, perhaps England will have to agree to playing their A team after all, but this time for the Ashes.