Cricket: England's fate tied to Fairbrother

Cricket: In-form batsman's fight for fitness takes on an added significance after another crucial contribution
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IT IS doubtful that the nation will ever become as worked up about the state of Neil Fairbrother's hamstring as it did, say, about Denis Compton's knee or Red Rum's fetlocks. Still, the noise of the twang from that direction should be an increasing source of concern.

If it did not exactly reverberate round the Waca ground in Perth the other night - though probably only because it was drowned out by the crowd chanting "We all hate the fat boy" at Arjuna Ranatunga - the grimace on Fairbrother's face did not need sound accompaniment. No firm prognosis has yet been made but the likelihood is that Fairbrother will be forced to miss both England's remaining qualifying matches in the Carlton & United Series and is not certain to make the final. Or he could recover in time for the lot.

At 35 and in his final coming as an international player Fairbrother has been splendid in this triangular tournament. Coming in at No 5 he has brought a weight of experience and intelligence to the batting. Without him and his method in Perth, England would never have come unstuck from the gum tree in which they were enmeshed.

His commanding, clever innings gave them a competitive score from which they won the match and their participation in the final was confirmed yesterday when Sri Lanka lost to Australia by 45 runs. Sri Lanka cannot now qualify. This week's matches are for practice only and if you suspect that, after each side has played eight games in 21 days, practice may not be needed tell that to the organisers. Whether fit or injured, Fairbrother should be rested this week.

The England manager, David Graveney, recognises the immense importance he has suddenly assumed and it may also have crossed his mind that a tweaked 35-year-old hamstring in the World Cup could mean absence from two or three crucial group matches. Fairbrother has said that the injury at the Waca did not give off the gunshot crack associated with such incidents when they are likely to have long-term effects but an air rifle plop is sufficient cause for worry.

"He has played in 10 one-day finals at Lord's and in a World Cup final," said Graveney. "He is a wise person within the team. Any England team needs someone like him. He's a throwback." If this begged the question of why Fairbrother did not play in England's one-day side between the last World Cup and in February 1996 and October 1998 the answer was probably to be found less in a fading of his irksome, scurrying batting style than a plethora of ankle, knee and hamstring pulls, twists and strains.

Fairbrother's form on this tour has represented a genuine comeback and it was no surprise that Graveney happily compared him to Michael Bevan, the Australian left-hander whose figures show him to be the best one-day batsman in the world. "Bevan is a more physical batsman who plays with the inner ring and chips over it. Neil is the archetypal nicker of singles. They are very similar players in a way though one's younger and probably runs faster. But Neil's pacing off the bat in the inner ring is better than Bevan."

It has been a pleasure to watch Fairbrother in this tournament (and his fielding at short midwicket and cover has lost nothing to the lads in their 20's either) but he missed one match as a precautionary measure and the latest stretch is a warning of his vulnerability. When Graveney mentioned that there were two physiotherapists in the squad, one for the rest of the team and one for Harvey, as he is always known, it was a joke but will remain so only so long as Fairbrother's man can keep him going.

England have not been consistently excellent in getting this far, they still have weaknesses but they have also shown that they have resilience. The difficult situations have sometimes been of their own making but they have the will and the balance in the side to get out of them. It is inevitable that one-day matches will be lost occasionally, regardless of the apparent superiority of a side. That is why a long haul competition such as the Carlton & United is likely to come up with the best team. Ten games each before the final tends to eliminate the element of good fortune.

The obvious and correct conclusion from this is that Sri Lanka are in a mess. Their cause cannot have been helped by the Muttiah Muralitharan Episode which had an insidious whispering campaign as a preamble and a call for throwing as a denouement. That gave way to the Ranatunga Affair, which lasted a week and the repercussions of which will continue for a long time.

Sri Lanka have been up against it on the bouncy pitches and look in need of fresh impetus. Their pinch-hitting campaign may have run its course and, for all his willingness, Ranatunga's field settings and bowling changes can be inflexible. In Perth yesterday Australia were allowed to make too many and although Sri Lanka looked as though they might make a fist of it they always had to come from behind.

When Sanath Jayasuriya was struck above the wrist by Brendon Julian's unexpected lifter and was forced to retire hurt they were plunged into deeper trouble. The Australians merely had to be patient.

As for Muralitharan, Lancashire were last night considering their response to the Sri Lankan cricket board after being told that the bowler may not be available for the County Championship next year. The Sri Lankan Board of Control announced they want the controversial bowler to rest after this summer's World Cup, at a time when he was expected to join the Red Rose county for the last two months of the season.

Australia v Sri Lanka (Perth)

Sri Lanka won the toss


A Gilchrist b Vaas 47

M Waugh c Atapattu

b Wickramasinghe 12

R Ponting run out 39

D Lehmann c Kaluwitharana

b Wickramasinghe 20

D Martyn c Mahanama

b Muralitharan 48

M Bevan not out 72

S Lee c Atapattu b Wickramasinghe 22

B Julian c Kaluwitharana b Vaas 1

S Warne not out 1

Extras (1b, 6w, 5nb) 12

Total: (for 7 wkts, 50 overs) 274

Fall: 1-62, 2-62, 3-100, 4-138, 5-205, 6-266, 7-268.

Bowling: Vaas 10-0-51-2, Perera 10-0-71-0, Wickramasinghe 10-0-48-3, Muralitharan 10-0-46-1, Jayasuriya 10-0-57-0.

Sri Lanka

S Jayasuriya retired hurt 50

R Kaluwitharana c Lee b Dale 13

M Atapattu run out 34

H Tillakaratne c Ponting b Warne 30

C Vaas c Julian b Warne 20

A Ranatunga c Gilchrist b Ponting 14

M Jayawardene c Dale b Warne 36

R Mahanama lbw b Julian 4

P Wickramasinghe c Warne

b McGrath 10

R Perera b McGrath 3

M Muralitharan not out 0

Extras (1b, 4lb, 2w, 8nb) 15

Total (all out, 46.3 overs) 229

Fall: 1-22, 2-126, 3-153, 4-159, 5-201, 6-213, 7-219, 8-229, 9-229.

Bowling: McGrath 8.2-3-19-2, Dale 6-0-51-1, Lee 5-0-32-0, Julian 7-0- 28-1, Ponting 10-0-41-1, Warne 10-0-53-3.