Cricket: England obliged to rouse themselves again: Atherton expected to be named captain for Australian tour today as Texaco Trophy gets under way at Edgbaston

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BATTLE-fatigued or not, England must crank themselves up again at Edgbaston today, and at Old Trafford on Saturday, for the two-match end-of-term beano known as the Texaco Trophy. Mike Atherton's troops, who have been on the go more or less non- stop since January, probably feel a little like the defenders at Rorke's Drift when another batch of Zulus suddenly appeared over the crest of the hill.

Whether they will still be Atherton's troops when the squad leaves for Australia in two months' time, or whether the captain will bust himself back to private, is due to be announced today. Atherton has had roughly 72 hours to ponder on whether the strain on his mental health, not to mention the strain on his bank account, can withstand a further period of high office.

The job will not be repossessed (although at current International Cricket Council rates his flat in Didsbury might be) and given the backing of both his team-mates and his chairman of selectors, it is more or less certain that Atherton has put the pistol back in the drawer and will take the side to Australia this winter.

Atherton, acknowledging that he will be a marked man in Australia, said yesterday: 'When you've got a disciplinary record, it stays with you, and that's unfortunate. As captain you want to try and set standards. However, I've always tried to play the game in the correct way and (pause for wry smile) apart from myself the England players have generally been well behaved.'

England's squad for the Texaco apparently offers encouragement to a number of players not currently in the Test side - Neil Fairbrother, Chris Lewis and Dominic Cork among them - although Raymond Illingworth has already gone out of his way to stress that the tour selectors will not allow perceived one-day specialists to muddle the Ashes equation, however well they might perform in these two games.

The one-day stuff this winter takes place either side of the second and third Test matches, and, as ever in Australia, is ludicrously entitled the World Series of Cricket. This year it is an even dafter title, given that England's other two opponents in a 12-match jamboree leading up to a best-of- three final are Australia Reserves and Zimbabwe.

Texaco have rather more soberly declined to describe their own competition as the world championship, because the world championship, as we know from previous Australia visits, is an event in which the cricket is a barely tolerable intrusion on the main events - involving canister-smoking parachutists, mobile discos and frisbee-catching wonder whippets.

Thanks to South Africa's long period of isolation, the form guide for this Texaco series is slightly misleading. England have a 100 per cent record in one-day internationals against South Africa, but then again they have only played them twice, which is only once more than they have met Canada and East Africa.

Those two matches were played in the last World Cup, and pretty silly they were too. Thanks to the Australian method of re-organising rain-affected matches, which allows the side that has batted first to shed its least productive overs, England's apparent cruise to victory in Melbourne became a breathless scramble when they had nine overs knocked off their reply, but only 11 runs deducted from the target.

That they still managed to win was less surprising than the fact that South Africa failed to adjust to their own revised target in the World Cup semi-final. Requiring 22 to win off 13 balls before it rained, they were then informed that this had been reappraised to a slightly trickier 21 runs off one ball.

The bemused batsman on strike that night in Sydney was Brian McMillan, named on Sunday as South Africa's man of the Test series, but an absentee today because of a bruised finger. McMillan's absence will be a severe handicap to his team, who must also try to forget the disappointment of drawing a three-match Test series after leading 1-0 for the third time in a row. They must also be ready for home now, and with the one- dayers tacked on to the end of the Test matches, it will come as a mild surprise to some people this morning to realise that the South Africans are still in the country.

South Africa themselves might be surprised to be facing Devon Malcolm once again, although probably not today on Edgbaston's slow pitch. Malcolm's contribution (like that of Allan Donald) is likely to be confined to the second game at Old Trafford, on a pitch more conducive to getting a few deliveries up around the rib-cage.

The player with perhaps most to gain in these games is Chris Lewis, who has a formidable talent, but an unfortunate propensity for taking his occasional male modelling assignments out with him on to a cricket field. When the heat is on, Lewis has all too often melted, and in cricketing terms, there is nowhere hotter than Australia.

ENGLAND (from): *M A Atherton, A J Stewart, G A Hick, G P Thorpe, N H Fairbrother, C C Lewis, S J Rhodes, P A J DeFreitas, D Gough, S D Udal, A R C Fraser, D G Cork, D E Malcolm.

SOUTH AFRICA (from): *K C Wessels, G Kirsten, W J Cronje, D J Cullinan, J N Rhodes, D J Richardson, C R Matthews, P L Symcox, P S de Villiers, A A Donald, P N Kirsten, R P Snell.

(Photograph omitted)