Cricket: England slide back to dark age

FOURTH TEST: Atherton's motivational powers as captain again questioned as Australia hand out a hard lesson in humiliation England 172 & 268 v Australia 501-9 dec Australia win by innings and 61 runs
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It took Australia one ball after lunch to round up England's second innings as the miracle the home side had hoped for turned out to be little more than a mirage in the Headingley haze. With heavy cloud cover and a second new ball adding to their problems, England lost their last six wickets for 56 runs to give Australia an emphatic victory and a 2-1 lead in the Ashes series.

On balance, it was no better than England deserved, for their cricket has been shoddy and lightweight compared with the focused aggression of their opponents. Once Nasser Hussain had been accounted for, caught by Jason Gillespie off Shane Warne in the fifth over, the result was a formality, albeit one briefly delayed by John Crawley, who hit a composed 72.

A glum-looking Michael Atherton conceded that Australia had once again played the better cricket. "It was a tale of missed opportunities," the England captain announced in his miserable monotone. "At 50 for 4 the door was ajar, but we weren't good enough to walk through it." What Atherton neglected to mention, however, was that since the first Test at Edgbaston those opportunities have diminished considerably.

Indeed, apart from the fighting efforts of Hussain and Crawley, England were humiliated and the selectors will no doubt deliberate long and hard when they meet this Saturday to pick the team for the Trent Bridge Test. But while popular opinion demands the inclusion of the Hollioake brothers, Adam and Ben, wholesale panic changes are unlikely.

Some alterations will surely be prudent and Australia now have a psychological ascendancy over too many in this England side for the team to remain unchanged. Two players who appear affected are Alec Stewart and Graham Thorpe. Both men have been struggling - though not with Surrey - since England's win at Edgbaston.

Robert Croft is another whose contributions have been muted, particularly with the bat where his reticence against the short ball has made him not so much a bunny as Welsh rarebit. He could become rarer still if either Phil Tufnell or Ashley Giles get among the wickets before the weekend.

The problems may run deeper, however, and with England again left wandering in familiar territory, Atherton's leadership has once more been called into question. Yet rather than concentrating on his lack of motivational skills when the chips are down, the debate is bound to centre on Atherton's verbal attack on the MCC member who responded to England's awful morning in the field with some clumsy criticism as they came off for lunch on Sunday.

If that was an exchange in the heat of the moment Atherton probably now regrets - though he glibly passed it off as "a polite inquiry after his health" - his inability to inspire his team to perform consistently with the pride and passion that both he and Lord MacLaurin, the chairman of the England and Wales Cricket Board, insist on, must surely be weighing heavy.

It is a malaise that his predecessor, Graham Gooch, also struggled to overcome and one of the reasons why he resigned from the captaincy here four years ago. Compared with Australia's buoyant pride and self-belief, this was England's most dismal performance of the summer, a fact that when compounded with his own current frailty against the short ball has not made the England captain any more amenable.

Once again, England's problems stemmed from being bowled out for 172, their third sub-200 first-innings score in three Tests. After that, England had just one opportunity to get back in the game when Australia had 50 on the board and four wickets gone. That was the moment when Thorpe dropped Matthew Elliott, whose eventual 199 was the backbone for his side's winning total of 501.

Headingley, for all the mystique surrounding its pitch, has proved a happy ground for Australian teams and despite their initial objections over the decision to switch pitches, this was their third substantial victory over England here in as many tours. Judging by the lingering hugs and handshakes that took place on the square afterwards, the win meant a lot more to Australia than their dominance at first suggested.

"From the second day onwards we played the better cricket," Taylor said. Asked if he thought England had fallen away since Edgbaston, he replied: "You can only play as well as you are allowed to play. At Edgbaston we bowled badly. In fact it's the first time I can remember 470 odd being scored against us in the first innings of a match. Since then we've turned it round and we've been forcing England to play a lesser standard than they did in the first Test."

The pitch, prepared to negate Warne (which apart from his crucial wicket to remove Hussain, it did) was tailor-made for accurate seam bowling. The only problem is that Glenn McGrath, Gillespie (9 for 86 in the match) and Paul Reiffel (5 for 49 in the second innings) were a far more potent force than Gough, Dean Headley and Mike Smith and England may have to resort to another strategy for Nottingham.

If this Ashes series is not to fizzle out, England desperately need to win at Trent Bridge. However, with Australia now playing the better cricket by some distance, Atherton and his men will not only have to take their chances but move mountains as well.

England need `injection', page 23

HEADINGLEY SCOREBOARD

Australia won toss

ENGLAND - First Innings 172 (J N Gillespie 7-37).

AUSTRALIA - First Innings 501 for 9 dec (M T G Elliott 199, R T Ponting 127, P R Reiffel 54no; D Gough 5-149).

ENGLAND - Second Innings

M A Butcher c Healy b McGrath 19

20 min, 18 balls, 3 fours

*M A Atherton c Warne b McGrath 2

27 mins, 13 balls

A J Stewart b Reiffel 16

41 min, 30 balls, 3 fours

N Hussain c Gillespie b Warne 105

251 min, 181 balls, 14 fours, 1 five

G P Thorpe c M Waugh b Gillespie 15

40 min, 30 balls, 1 four

J P Crawley b Reiffel 72

264 min, 214 balls, 10 fours

M A Ealham c M Waugh b Reiffel 4

67 min, 47 balls

D W Headley lbw b Reiffel 3

30 min, 17 balls

R D B Croft c Healy b Reiffel 5

16 min, 7 balls, 1 four

D Gough b M Waugh b Gillespie 0

2 min, 1 ball

A M Smith not out 4

3 min, 4 balls, 1 four

Extras (b6, lb4, nb13) 23

Total (385 min, 91.1 overs) 268

Fall: 1-23 (Butcher), 2-28 (Atherton), 3-57 (Stewart), 4-89 (Thorpe), 5-222 (Hussain), 6-252 (Ealham), 7-256 (Crawley), 8-263 (Headley), 9-264 (Gough), 10-268 (Croft).

Bowling: McGrath 22-5-80-2 (nb2) (7-1-37-2, 2-0-6-0, 6-2-24-0, 7-2-13- 0); Reiffel 21.1-2-49-1 (nb8) (9-0-22-1, 4-0-12-0, 3-1-5-0, 5.1-1-10-4); Gillespie 23-8-65-2 (nb2) (7-1-29-1, 6-2-22-0 10-5-14-1); Warne 21-6-53- 1 (nb2) (9-2-25-0, 12-4-28-1); S Waugh 4-1-11-0 (nb1) (one spell).

Progress: Fourth day close: 212-4 (Hussain 101, Crawley 48) 63 overs. Fifth day: New ball taken after 80.2 overs, 246-5. 250: 337 min, 81.4 overs. Lunch: 268-9 (Croft 5, Smith 4) 91 overs. Innings closed: 1.40pm.

Crawley's 50: 164 min, 133 balls, 8 fours.

Umpires: M J Kitchen and C J Mitchley. TV replay umpire: R Julian. Match referee: C W Smith.

Man of the match: J N Gillespie. Adjudicator: I T Botham.

AUSTRALIA WON BY AN INNINGS AND 61 RUNS

FIFTH TEST: 7-11 August (at Trent Bridge).

SIXTH TEST: 21-25 August (at The Oval).

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