Cricket: England pay for missed chances

Second Test: England 112 and 126-5 Australia 240: Hick provides a rare highlight as the tourists' batsmen undo their bowlers' good work
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THE SCHIZOPHRENIC nature of England's cricket, largely thought to have gone into remission under Alec Stewart, has resurfaced in Perth. In a remarkable first two days that did not require the close attentions of a pitch inspector, 25 wickets fell as ball dominated bat.

At one stage, after England's second innings had limped to 40 for 4, a two-day finish looked possible. This has happened only once since the War. On that occasion Australia beat New Zealand in Wellington, a victory achieved in just eight-and-a-half hours of playing time. By all accounts the pitch was a pig, an assessment not applicable here in Perth, where the only movement, apart from some swing, has been vertical.

The pitch at the WACA has long been an acquired taste among batsmen unused to its quirks. Quicker than just about any surface on earth, its trampoline bounce disconcerts and exposes those with flawed temperaments and techniques. Unsurprisingly, England's bats- men have come second on both counts and only a spirited retort by the bowlers yesterday and a brutal cameo by Graeme Hick prevented widespread derision.

As bowling fightbacks go against Australia, it was fairly heroic stuff. In the past, the wheels have been known to come off in similar circumstances and it would not have been surprising if England's attack had allowed Australia to post a big enough total to contemplate batting just once.

That they managed only 240 owed much to the debutant Alex Tudor, whose hostile post-lunch spell brought him four wickets, his first two being the impressive double of the Waugh twins.

Tudor, a bold selection for which the selectors must be applauded, has not looked out of place with either bat or ball in this match and many seasoned Pommiephobes have been heard murmuring their approval. But if he took the bulk of the wickets, Darren Gough (whose second-day spell was a superb 15-8-12-2) and Alan Mullally were equally impressive.

England's cricket against Australia has resembled many things over the past decade, few of them flattering. This Test it has been something akin to a defrosting vindaloo - cold one minute, hot the next. However, one aspect of the game that has been entirely consistent has been the abysmal catching and the gulf that exists between England, who spilled five decent chances, and Australia remains vast.

Taking your chances, especially against opponents as robust as these, is vital. As in Brisbane, Steve Waugh was twice missed before he was 30, chances that, if not simple, tend to be snaffled by the home side. Mind you, considering that Mark Taylor should have been given out lbw second ball to Gough for nought on Saturday, parity on first innings, had England taken their chances, would not have been too far fetched.

Like a volatile stock market, England's gains are often devalued by their losses and what the bowlers clawed back after the batting had been routed on Saturday was quickly put into perspective when England batted again. Only a late rally by Hick, batting as he does for Worcestershire, gave England supporters anything to cheer as Australia again knocked over England's top five cheaply.

Hick, on a pair following his second-ball duck on Saturday, played some extraordinary shots. With his, and England's, options closing by the minute, Hick blazed away furiously, and he twice pulled Jason Gillespie for huge sixes.

Hick has always looked a better player going for his strokes. A mental ditherer, he needs the situation to be clear-cut and grey areas simply bring out the worst in him. So often an English pro's view on Test cricket is one of limiting damage rather than inflicting it. For once Hick got it right and Gillespie, trying to intimidate him, took the brunt of the punishment, as the paceman conceded 69 runs in just nine overs.

It was a thrilling finale to a day that began sluggishly as Australia tried to grind their way to an indomitable position. Made to struggle by England's disciplined and aggres- sive bowling, the home side added just 44 runs in 30 overs. With England having little to show for their pressure save the wicket of the nightwatchman Gillespie, and with the Waughs established at the crease, the prognosis looked bleak, especially when Steve Waugh drove Tudor, now wielding the second new ball, for three fours in successive balls.

It would have been enough to break many rookies but Tudor upped a gear and, shortening his length a notch, jagged one back through his defences to hit the top of middle-and-off. If that was a notable first scalp, he virtually trumped it in his next over when he had brother Mark, never looking comfortable, caught at third slip driving at an outswinger.

Meanwhile, Gough, who has endured more dropped catches than anyone, removed the dangerous Ian Healy with an inswinger, though not before he had been dropped by Dominic Cork in the gully off Tudor. Fired by his belated success, Gough immediately removed Damien Fleming with his next ball to set up a hat-trick, a threat McGrath negotiated with a straight bat.

Not long after Gough joined the band of culprits when he put down Ricky Ponting off Tudor at fine leg, after the Tasmanian had top-edged his hook shot. Revenge was quick, though, and the youngster removed Ponting and McGrath with two sharp bouncers to end his first bowl for England with the heartening figures of 4 for 89.

More remarkable, perhaps, is that Australia, in a batting performance that matched England's for carelessness, lost their last six wickets after lunch for just 31 runs. Yet, what ground England reclaim, they just as easily yield and, having succumbed to Fleming's subtle swingers in the first innings, they again fell as he wobbled the ball about into the breeze.

Mark Butcher, following his century in the last Test, did not last long and he followed his first-innings dismissal, caught behind pushing at Fleming, with an almost identical one in the second. Nasser Hussain, a host of poor decisions against him recently, promptly received another after umpire Daryl Harper, standing in his first Test, gave him out lbw.

Harper was the one who decided Taylor was not out to Gough for nought, a decision, considering Taylor scored 61, that cost England dear.

Stewart, no doubt tired from both keeping and captaining, was quickly dispatched for nought, his flat-footed drive off the back foot never covering the swing and the bounce as the edge flew to first slip, where Taylor took it.

At that point England were 15 for 3 and contemplating ridicule when Atherton began to play a few shots. Twice hooking McGrath for a brace of fours, and driving Fleming, he played more fluently than he has of late. When he was out, again showing the bowler half a bat instead of the whole face, at least it was not McGrath punching the air.

In fact McGrath went wicketless and it was Colin Miller, getting John Crawley to pop one up to short leg, who broke Fleming's impressive sequence. With Ramprakash playing the barnacle and Hick blasting away, 50 was added for the sixth wicket to take England to within two runs of erasing the deficit.

In the context of the match, 128 runs is a huge handicap to overcome. Having incurred it, though, England have largely themselves to blame.