Cricket: England's flash of good fortune

First Ashes Test: Australia 485 & 237-3 dec England 375 & 179- 6 Match drawn: Torrential rain rescues tourists to earn a draw from a contest that was swinging Australia's way
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IT WAS more like a night at a Wagnerian Opera than a Test match, except that the storyline petered out to give the vanquished time for a breather. Cut and thrust, happy hookers and a cast of thousands all played their part, until thunder, lightning and torrential rain brought a premature end to the drama.

Although welcome from the visitors' point of view, rain saves England was an undistinguished way to earn a reprieve. Compared with Australia, England's cricket has been careless and naive, the high points earlier in the match more than cancelled out by elementary errors in the latter stages. Going to Perth for the next Test all square is a huge break, and England must try hard not to squander it.

According to their captain, Alec Stewart, rain coming to the rescue is by no means a common occurrence. "I honestly can't remember it happening during my career," he said. If so, he must have a short memory as it was not more than 18 months ago that an unpromising position against Australia at Lord's was washed out.

On that occasion Glenn McGrath took 8 for 38, a virtuoso performance the tall pace bowler came close to emulating with a decisive 6 for 85 in England's first innings, a spell that earned him the man of the match award.

McGrath has made something of a habit of dismissing Michael Atherton and before this match he had promised him plenty of short stuff to loosen up the batsman's bad back. He was true to his word and when England began the final day 322 runs in arrears, Atherton was forced to hook three times in the bowler's opening over.

Because of his bad back, Atherton has tended to be a hooker or a swayer rather than a ducker. The pace bowler has worked this out and Atherton's dismissal, top-edging a bouncer too high to control, was careless for a player renowned for his iron will. McGrath has now snared him nine times in their last 13 meetings, a frequency that suggests the needle is even beginning to penetrate Atherton's thick hide.

In fact, it proved to be McGrath's sole success as Stuart MacGill, a modest performance in the first innings behind him, and Mark Waugh, used when the light faded, began to extract some sharp turn.

Mark Butcher, who once again looked organised and compact against the pace bowlers, suddenly found that he could not read MacGill's googly. Twice beaten on the outside, the left-hander tried to pad away the leg- break and was lbw.

A poor starter against spin, Stewart was quickly caught at silly point after thrusting bat and pad hard at Waugh, to leave his team lunching on 108 for 3. Later Waugh dismissed his Surrey team-mate Graham Thorpe after the batsman turned one off the face of the bat straight to short- leg.

Undeterred by the comings and goings around him, Nasser Hussain continued to battle it out. Along with Butcher and Graham Thorpe, Hussain has looked England's best batsman, and he twice struck Waugh for straight sixes. If he was troubled, it was only by MacGill's googly, a suspicion confirmed when he gloved one on to his stumps after giving himself room to cut.

If that was an error of judgement, it paled besides Mark Ramprakash's bayonet charge down the pitch four overs later, a lurch that saw him not so much stumped as timed out.

Quite what anyone is doing running down the pitch to a leg-spinner when their team is playing for a draw and storm clouds are brewing is anyone's guess. Once again, the intense pressure of a Test has forced an England player into making a rash decision. That said, Ramprakash will not be the only one secretly relieved at the Australian selectors' decision to replace MacGill with Colin Miller, a seam-cum-off-spinner, for the Perth Test in three days' time.

With bad light intervening about 20 minutes before the rain did, the contentious issue of floodlights arose once more. While they are a good idea from the public's point of view, it would be lunacy for England to accept conditions - standard in Shield cricket for two years - without reasonable experience of them.

In any case the twilight period of normal day-night matches - conditions that would be emulated if lights were switched on during moments of bad light - are notoriously bad for sighting the ball. Indeed, when South Africa played with a red ball under lights last year, they claimed it was difficult to see.

It is where Mark Taylor's argument, that the use of lights would help minimise the drawn matches that are killing attendances for Tests, falls down. The quality of play must not be compromised for the sake of a result.

Fortunate draw or not, this was not a completely one-sided contest, and for the first half of he match England, bar one or two elementary mistakes, managed to compete favourably with their opponents. And yet when it came to making the hard yard, as all the best teams must, Stewart's side were a long way from contesting a photo finish. "Although there were a lot of positives," Stewart said, "there is also room for improvement in certain areas."

One of those must be the catching. Without a clutch of flair players - Hussain comes closest at present - England must take their chances, for they will not be created at will but on the back of hard graft.

Nothing makes bowlers, or batters for that matter, more despondent than missed opportunities and careless strokes. They cost valuable momentum and England's cricket has been full of them. In truth, too many for the products of a so-called professional game.

England's escape at the Gabba was not a great one, even if the storm that saved them certainly was. Drawing the first Test against Australia, if not deserved, has at least given them an opportunity to regroup without the hysteria of being behind in the series. It is a position not to be sniffed at if recent Ashes series in Australia are anything to go by.

AUSTRALIA (Second Ashes Test, Perth, 28 December): M A Taylor (capt), S R Waugh, M J Slater, J L Langer, M E Waugh, R T Ponting, I A Healy (wkt), M S Kasprowicz, D M Fleming, G D McGrath, J N Gillespie, C R Miller (12th man to be named).


Final day; Australia won toss

AUSTRALIA - First Innings 485 (I A Healy 134, S R Waugh 112; A D Mullally 5-105).

ENGLAND - First Innings 375 (M A Butcher 116, N Hussain 59, G P Thorpe 77, M R Ramprakash 69no; G D McGrath 6-85).

AUSTRALIA - Second Innings 237 for 3 dec (M J Slater 113, J L Langer 74).

ENGLAND - Second Innings

(Monday: 26 for 0)

M A Butcher lbw b MacGill 40

139 min, 98 balls, 4 fours

M A Atherton c Fleming b McGrath 28

65 min, 55 balls, 4 fours

N Hussain b MacGill 47

149 min, 122 balls, 1 four, 2 sixes

*A J Stewart c Ponting b M Waugh 3

9 min, 8 balls

G P Thorpe c Langer b M Waugh 9

41 min, 27 balls

M R Ramprakash st Healy b MacGill 14

39 min, 45 balls, 1 four

D G Cork not out 21

39 min, 37 balls, 3 fours

R D B Croft not out 4

23 min, 25 balls

Extras (lb3 w1 nb9) 13

Total (for 6, 255 min, 68 overs) 179

Fall: 1-46 (Atherton) 2-96 (Butcher) 3-103 (Stewart) 4-133 (Thorpe) 5- 148 (Hussain) 6-161 (Ramprakash).

Bowling: McGrath 16-6-30-1 (12-5-23-1, 3-1-5-0, 1-0-2-0); Kasprowicz 8-3-28-0 (w1) (3-0-19-0, 5-3-9-0); Fleming 7-2-12-0 (nb2); MacGill 22- 4-51-3 (one spell each); M Waugh 14-0-55-2 (nb7) (4-0-22-1, 5-0-15-1, 5-0-18-0); Ponting 1-1-0-0 (one spell).

Progress: Fourth day close: 26-0 (Butcher 7, Atherton 18) 7 overs. Fifth day: 50: 68 min, 16.5 overs. 100: 148 min, 37.1 overs. Lunch: 108-3 (Hussain 28, Thorpe 0) 39 overs. 150: 218 min, 56.3 overs. Bad light stopped play at 2.20pm; early tea taken; no further play.

Match drawn.

Umpires: K T Francis (S Lanka) and D B Hair (Aus).

TV Replay Umpire: P D Parker.

Match referee: J R Reid.

Man of the match: G D McGrath.

Compiled by Jo King