Cricket: England have to take the initiative

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The Independent Online


reports from Headingley

Michael Atherton, never previously one to be counted amongst the one- day game's fanatics, suddenly finds he has much to play for over the next four days. But if protecting an unbeaten home record as captain in Texaco Trophy matches would normally be motivation enough, the added incentive of grasping the initiative against the Australians ought to ensure that this series, which begins here today, will be anything but predictable.

Looking relaxed and clean-shaven at yesterday's press conference, the England captain promised that despite Australia's decade-long dominance over their old rivals, none of his players would have an inferiority complex.

"Australia is one team we haven't played or beaten in this kind of trophy," Atherton said yesterday. "We are keen to get off to a good start and grasp the initiative for the rest of the summer.

"We have plenty of individuals who are capable of doing well. You will have to wait and see, but we do have plenty of guys who will entertain you on your holiday. I believe we'll be competitive this time. We just need a better start to the series than we've had in the past."

Such a wish may not be entirely hopeful, either. For one thing Australia, having lost out to the weather, appear underprepared. But although their captain, Mark Taylor, claims it is not a concern, their recent defeat - itself a rarity inside these shores - on a slow seaming pitch at Worcester, did not befit a side who had just beaten two of the toughest teams in world cricket.

Taylor, however, was optimistic. "We are ready," he said. "We came here with a lot of cricket behind us and we only had a few weeks off to recharge our batteries."

Headingley, a traditional haven for seam bowling until the pitch was relaid a few seasons ago, may well be similar and revert to type, particularly if the heavy cloud cover of the last two days remains overhead.

If so, runs are likely to be eked out rather than plundered, the stage set for scrappers like Taylor, Atherton and Steve Waugh rather than the expansive strokeplay of Michael Slater and Alec Stewart.

Nick Knight, his injured finger recovered enough for him to field at slip, will open the innings with Atherton. Thereafter the Surrey trio of Stewart, Graham Thorpe and Adam Hollioake will form a middle-order that will probably be bolstered by John Crawley, preferred - at least initially - to Graham Lloyd, as the man most likely to prevent Shane Warne spinning a run-tight web.

With Mark Ealham, Robert Croft and Phil DeFreitas likely to fill the numerous all-rounder roles, both Ben Hollioake and Ashley Giles may have to wait a while longer before making their debut.

But while Taylor believes that advances in one-day cricket - such as pinch hitters - take it progressively further away as a game from Test cricket, England's early season pitches, with their slow movement, will help keep many of the time-honoured orthodoxies, such as line and length bowling, in place.

That said, Darren Gough will lead a bowling attack which will include either Dean Headley or Chris Silverwood as the other specialist bowler. A plethora of all-rounders, including Croft's off-spin, will provide the remaining overs.

There is always the temptation to pick a bowler on his home ground and Silverwood may well get the nod. More likely, however, is that Dean Headley will take the new ball alongside Gough. At the age of 27, it is high time the selectors found out what Headley - so impressive amongst the colts for England A last winter - can really do in the company of wolves.

And some test it could be with Mark Waugh, Michael Bevan, Greg Blewett and Slater all keen to put bat to ball and rock England's confidence. But despite their batting prowess, and the spectre of Warne, Taylor insisted that his side did not have a superiority complex.

"As I said when we arrived, it's nil-all at the moment. We can't just expect to win without doing the things that got us there in the past," Taylor said.

"As Australians, we don't need much more motivation than being in an Ashes contest and you can be sure we'll be going flat out as of tomorrow. It will be nice to win the one-day series because the side that wins it comprehensively will carry a big psychological advantage into the first Test match."

With his own form under more scrutiny than Atherton's was in Zimbabwe, Taylor, who feels he is at last beginning to hit the ball well, will be keen for a score as well as a win.

"I'm probably looking forward to this series more than anyone at the moment," he said after Australia's fielding practice yesterday. Knowing England's proclivity for bowling people back into form, I'll bet he is.

FIRST TEXACO TROPHY INTERNATIONAL (Headingley, today): England (from): M A Atherton (capt), N V Knight, A J Stewart (wkt), G P Thorpe, J P Crawley, G D Lloyd, A J Hollioake, M A Ealham, R D B Croft, D Gough, P A J DeFreitas, D W Headley, C E W Silverwood, B C Hollioake, A F Giles.

Australia (from): M A Taylor (capt), M E Waugh, S R Waugh, M G Bevan, G S Blewett, M J Slater, I A Healy (wkt), S K Warne, M S Kasprowicz, J N Gillespie, G D McGrath, B P Julian.

County cricket, page 28