CRICKET : England may lose Hick for fourth Test

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The Independent Online
Anyone wanting to get into the fourth Test match without paying here tomorrow could do worse than wrap a bandage around their head, put their arm in a sling, and arrange for someone to push them up to the players' entrance in a wheelchair. "Englan d cricketer? Certainly sir. Dressing-room's right over there."

Graeme Hick is now a doubtful starter for this match because of a bad back, and whether or not England eventually end this tour with the reputation as the worst England side to visit Australia, they have long since inherited the title of the unfittest England team ever to come here.

Hick, who has advertised a long-standing back problem by batting in a sweater in draining heat, and who had a spell in traction earlier in the tour, seized up again during England's last match in Bendigo, and despite a specialist's report indicating no structural damage, he is currently unable to bend over far enough to tie his shoelaces.

With Alec Stewart also out with a damaged finger, and confirmation yesterday that Neil Fairbrother, who only came out here as an injury replacement, is out of the final two Tests with shoulder tendon damage, England will not even be able to raise a full quorum of six specialist batsmen here in the event of Hick being declared unfit.

England did consider summoning Mark Ramprakash from the A tour in India, but after deciding that this would not be fair on Ramprakash, particularly if Hick does recover in time, they have sent instead, for the second time, for Chris Lewis. Not even Lewis's admirers, if he has any left, would describe him as a top-six Test batsman.

The selectors are also considering, as an alternative to Lewis, playing Jack Russell and employing Stephen Rhodes as a specialist batsman, although on current form they would be better off with Devon Malcolm, whose Test average in this series is better than Mike Gatting's. In Rhodes' five Test innings on tour, he has scored 4, 2, 0, 14 and 1.

Michael Atherton who is himself struggling with a bad back, has reamined reasonably phlegmatic so far, but said: "It does start to get you down eventually. I really can't explain all these injuries." Neither is it any use asking the physio to try to put his finger on it, as his finger is too badly broken to apply a bandage or a pain-killing spray.

Atherton said: "We've just got to make do with what we have got left. The injuries may be too many to explain, but the niggles [referring to the recurring back problems suffered by himself and Hick, and Graham Thorpe's intermittent groin strains] are theresult of a long year." In other words, too much high-pressure cricket.

England have now been at it, more or less, since January, and even without the physical ailments, it would be a surprise if they are now not too mentally worn out to avoid the fate that has befallen them in their three previous Ashes series. They have not so much been beaten, as humiliated, and far from feeling that they can at least salvage something from these last two matches, they would probably settle for two draws and a semi-respectable 2-0 defeat.

However, Adelaide is no longer the spiritual home of the Flat Earth Society, having yielded results in each of its last two Test matches, and both sides expect this pitch to help the spinners. England have one, Philip Tufnell, while Australia are going in with two leg-spinners in Shane Warne and Peter McIntyre.

McIntyre has already taken wickets against England in the South Australia game earlier in the tour, and was not far off the mark when he said after that game: "I reckon Warne will have a lot of fun bowling to these guys in the Test matches." McIntyre, who has 24 first-class wickets at an average of 21 this season, will bowl in tandem with Warne for the first time since they toured Zimbabwe with an Australian development side five years ago.

The portents for England on the batting front are not good either. Gatting looks likely, purely through unavoidable circumstances, to play an entire Test series despite being chronically out of form, and Graham Gooch, who tomorrow equals David Gower's England record of 117 Test appearances, has recently been a slip catch waiting to happen. If Hick does not play, Australia will reckon two wickets will see them through to England's tail.

Australia's batsmen, on the other hand, are all nicely in form. The Waugh brothers both scored heavily in their latest Sheffield Shield match (Steve made a double century) as did Michael Slater. Neither are they in the business of feeling sorry for England. Their coach, Bobby Simpson, said yesterday: "We have a tour to the West Indies coming up, and want to go there on a high note. We'll give them nothing. No mercy at all."

The St John's Ambulance will be on full alert for this game, partly because England are in town, and partly because the Barmy Army's relatively friendly co-existence with the natives will be tested rather more at Adelaide than the previous venues.

Adelaide is the last Australian Test venue with a "popular" non-segregated standing area, and when the beer begins to take serious effect, normally around mid-afternoon, we could yet (albeit off the field) witness a close and hard-fought contest.

England A win, page 38