Cricket: England pinned to the ropes

Fourth Test: Summer of promise turns to discontent as Atherton's men fall victim to sublime strokeplay
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The pantomime horse had taken a turn for the better by yesterday morning. If only the same prognosis could be made for the body of English cricket. By the end of a day curtailed at lunch by an irritating drizzle, England were 201 behind Australia and facing another uphill struggle for survival, not just in this Test but for the rest of a summer which once promised so much.

The only sign of England's superiority, so loudly celebrated after the Texaco Trophy and the First Test at Edgbaston, came in a few nostalgic clips of Ian Botham on the video screen. A defeat as complete as either of the last two home Ashes series is not out of the question now, so violent has been the swing of the psychological pendulum since those heady days. Depressing perhaps, but no more than a realistic assessment of the difference between these two teams. England can pinpoint their errors, claim with some justification that the rub of the Headingley green has not gone their way, yet their deficiencies over the first three days of the Fourth Cornhill Test cannot be measured by one dropped catch or the odd loose stroke.

The faults lie deeper. Spencer Tracy once gave the advice to a young actor: "Learn your lines and try not to bump into the furniture." England have bumped into a lot of furniture here. Graham Thorpe swished at Jason Gillespie and lost his off stump just as England needed to regroup after Mike Atherton's dismissal. Rather more harshly, Dean Headley, having played soundly for the first part of the morning in his role as nightwatchman, flailed Gillespie's first ball straight to Steve Waugh in the gully. Schoolboys are told to take a look at a new bowler.

Gillespie was rampant thereafter, aided by Atherton's uncharacteristic frivolity. Bumping into the furniture, fluffing lines, bad cricket. Even if England bat their way out of trouble, the policy of continuity will need to be shelved before the next Test in Nottingham. Far from the "helluva scrap" we were promised by the England captain after Old Trafford, Headingley has so far produced a tantalising glimpse of equality, when England were 138 for 3 on the second morning and had Australia 50 for 4 soon after; then huge, unappetising, dollops of future subjection.

The sobering thought for Lord MacLaurin, the new English Cricket Board and the England team management is that the architects of Australia's dominance here are aged 22 (Ricky Ponting and Gillespie) and 25 (Matthew Elliott). Greg Blewett, the centurion at Edgbaston, is also 25. Mark Waugh, England's traditional flayer, has barely scored a run and Glenn McGrath, though deadly at Lord's, has not been the force expected.

In contrast, England gave a misplaced debut to Mike Smith, two months short of his 30th birthday and so clearly short of Test class that you wonder what sort of brainstorm hit the England selectors on Thursday morning. Gentle medium-pacers like Smith, unless conditions are entirely in their favour, have to be extremely skilful to tackle players of Test class on a half- decent pitch. Andy Caddick would have been a far more dangerous proposition.

Ponting could hardly believe his luck. Like Blewett, small of stature but blessed with natural timing, he took one look at Smith and began to pepper the massed ranks of cover fielders as if masterminding practice. Within an hour, Ponting had reduced the Western Terrace to an eery calm as his breathtaking cover drives, executed with a wristy flourish, banished partisanship. Thank goodness the Australian selectors ignored him for the first three Tests.

The Tasmanian reached his century with the minimum of fuss, tucking Robert Croft just behind square, and acknowledged his second century in 10 days with an extravagant wave to the Australian balcony. By the time he was undone by his own soaring confidence, the partnership with Elliott, worth 268 runs in 69 overs, had effectively ended England's chances of regaining the Ashes. Elliott slipped quietly into the supporting role, his pushes and flicks punctuated by the odd hefty thump off his legs or wide of cover. One back-foot slash, which sped down to the steps of the old pavilion, was worthy of David Gower.

Ponting showed signs of impatience shortly before he was out. A rather inelegant mow over midwicket off Croft was followed by a lunge down the pitch and a stumping chance which Alec Stewart missed. The ball squirted awkwardly underneath Ponting's flailing bat, obscuring the wicketkeeper's sight, but the fumble summed up England's failings and further sunk their spirits. Ponting, at least, spared them too much more punishment. Having driven Darren Gough for a handsome four through the covers, he tried to pull a good length ball through midwicket and top edged a steepling catch to Mark Ealham at square cover.

The arrival of Ian Healy did little to ease England's temper. He is a cussed little batsman at the best of times - at 318 for 5, he is salt in the wound. His first ball was clipped off his legs for four, his second disappeared over gully. Gough was driven to distraction. In three balls from Ealham, Healy survived a healthy shout for lbw, edged an outswinger just short of the slips and whistled an off-drive fractionally past his leg stump. Elliott, meanwhile, eased past his 150 and, by the time play was called off for the day at 4.40, Australia had stretched their lead to 201 and, barring further intervention from the weather, condemned Atherton's men to another long rearguard action against Shane Warne today and tomorrow.

Yet it was not all gloom for England. The front half of the horse, knocked unconscious by a rugby tackle from a Headingley steward on Friday evening, had recovered sufficiently to be discharged from Leeds hospital and in mid-morning George William Fogarty was born to Andy Fogarty, the Headingley groundsman and his wife, Susie. That, at least, will be one new dawn which lasts.

Fourth Test scoreboard

Australia won toss

ENGLAND - First innings

M A Butcher c Blewett b Reiffel 24

(61 min, 57 balls, 2 fours; caught at short leg of firm push)

*M A Atherton c Gillespie b McGrath 41

(223 min, 143 balls, 6 fours; hooked down long leg's throat)

A J Stewart c Blewett b Gillespie 7

(27 min, 24 balls; gloved lifter to short leg)

N Hussain c Taylor b McGrath 26

(57 min, 40 balls, 4 fours; pushed seaming ball to slip)

D W Headley c S Waugh b Gillespie 22

(49 min, 32 balls, 2 fours; carved to gully)

G P Thorpe b Gillespie 15

(29 min, 26 balls, 3 fours; chopped on attempted pull)

J P Crawley c Blewett b Gillespie 2

23 min, 13 balls; caught of short-leg's boot

M A Ealham not out 8

(41 min, 24 balls)

R D B Croft c Ponting b Gillespie 6

(12 min, 8 balls, 1 four; steered short ball to leg trap)

D Gough b Gillespie 0

(5 min, 2 balls; inside edge from forward push)

A M Smith b Gillespie 0

(2 min, 2 balls; beaten by pace on forward defensive)

Extras (b4 lb4 w1 nb12) 21

Total (269 min, 59.4 overs) 172

Fall: 1-43 (Butcher) 2-58 (Stewart) 3-103 (Hussain) 4-138 (Headley) 5- 154 (Atherton) 6-154 (Thorpe) 7-163 (Crawley) 8-172 (Croft) 9-172 (Gough) 10-172 (Smith).

Bowling: McGrath 22-5-67-2 (nb3 w1) (7-0-25-0, 10-2-38-1, 5-3-4-1); Reiffel 20-4-41-1 (nb9) (6-1-10-0, 7-1-15-1, 7-2-16-0); Gillespie 13.4-1-37-7 (nb1) (6-0-14-1, 7.4-1-23-6); Blewett 3-0-17-0, Warne 1-0-2-0 (one spell each).

Progress: First day: rain delayed start until 12.08pm. Rain stopped play 12.25-1.25pm at 9-0 (Butcher 8, Atherton 0) 4 overs. RSP 1.28-4.53pm at 14-0 (Butcher 9, Atherton 0) 4.5 overs. 50 in 75 min, 17 overs. 100: 146 min, 33.4 overs. Close: 106-3 (Atherton 34, Headley 0) 36 overs. Second day: 150: 16 min, 49.2 overs. Innings closed: 12.53pm.

AUSTRALIA - First innings

*M A Taylor c Stewart b Gough 0

(10 min, 11 balls; gloved attempting to avoid short ball)

M T G Elliott not out 164

(392 min, 308 balls, 19 fours, 3 sixes)

G S Blewett c Stewart b Gough 1

(15 min, 8 balls; loose front foot drive)

M E Waugh c and b Headley 8

(31 min, 18 balls, 1 four; deceived by slower ball)

S R Waugh c Crawley b Headley 4

(15 min, 12 balls; steered to short leg)

R T Ponting c Ealham b Gough 127

(263 min, 202 balls, 19 fours, 1 six; skied attempted pull to point)

I A Healy not out 27

(53 min, 42 balls, 5 fours)

Extras (b5 lb7 nb30) 42

Total (for 5, 392 min, 95.2 overs) 373

Fall: 1-0 (Taylor) 2-16 (Blewett) 3-43 (M Waugh) 4-50 (S Waugh) 5-318 (Ponting).

To bat: S K Warne, P R Reiffel, J N Gillespie, G D McGrath.

Bowling: Gough 28-5-104-3 (nb7) (6-3-10-2, 3-0-13-0, 5-0-25-0, 5-1-17- 0, 4-1-11-0, 5-0-28-1); Headley 21-1-105-2 (nb11) (10-1-43-2, 3-0-13-0, 2-0-10-0, 3-0-17-0, 3-0-22-0); Smith 18-2-69-0 (nb5) (8-1-28-0, 2-0-10- 0, 3-0-17-0, 3-1-5-0, 2-0-9-0); Ealham 10.2-3-24-0 (2-1-8-0, 4-2-7-0, 4.2-0-9-0); Croft 16-1-45-0 (2-0-11-0, 2-0-2-0, 7-0-24-0, 1-0-1-0, 4-1- 7-0); Butcher 2-0-14-0 (nb6) (one spell).

Progress: Second day: 50: 69 min, 16 overs. 100: 121 min, 28.3 overs. Tea: 114-4 (Elliott 65, Ponting 25) 31 overs. 150: 159 min, 38.3 overs. 200: 221 min, 53.5 overs. 250: 265 min, 64.1 overs. Close: 258-4 (Elliott 134, Ponting 86) 67 overs. Third day: 300: 325 min, 80.2 overs. New ball taken after 81 overs at 302-4. 350 in 364 min, 88.3 overs. Rain stopped play 12.57pm at 373-5 (Elliott 164, Healy 27) 95.2 overs.

Elliott's 50: 114 min, 95 balls, 7 fours, 1 six. 100: 185 min, 156 balls, 14 fours, 2 sixes. 150: 356 min, 284 balls, 18 fours, 3 sixes. Ponting's 50: 118 min, 81 balls, 8 fours. 100: 227 min, 165 balls, 14 fours, 1 six.

Umpires: M J Kitchen and C J Mitchley.

TV Replay Umpire: R Julian. Match Referee: C W Smith.