CRICKET: England's venom is antidote to apathy

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The Independent Online
One month ago, nothing seemed more certain than Australia arriving here for the fifth Test ready to apply the final brush strokes to a 5-0 whitewash. However, England's phoenix-like revival in this Ashes series has rekindled interest to such an extent that Perth's reputation as a place where it is harder to sell Test-match tickets than a hamburger at a bar mitzvah is about to be severely dented. There is normally more noise coming from Perth's public library than the WACA when a Test match is on, and the customary marketing trick is to fill the ground with marquees to give the illusion of a sell-out atmosphere. This time, though, Perth's biggestTest crowd for more than a decade is expected to see whether England's victory in Adelaide was nothing more than an aberrational blip, or whether they can really level this series at 2-2.

The WACA has space for 32,000 people, and although only 26,000 turned up over the full five days of last year's Test against New Zealand, an aggregate of around 70,000 (the biggest since England were here in 1982-83) is expected if the match goes the full distance.

England currently have the better momentum of two tired teams, and need only rouse themselves for one last effort before putting their feet up for a couple of months. Australia, by contrast, have been on the go for the past five months, and even before they leave for a four-Test series in the West Indies next month, will first be required to squeeze in a limited-overs bunfight in New Zealand.

No wonder Australia want to shorten their next tour to England in 1997, playing a single four-day match between each of the six Tests instead of two over three days. The Test and County Cricket Board, needless to say, is trying to talk the Australians out of it, and as itineraries are invariably reciprocal arrangements ("you scratch my back") the TCCB has once again confirmed its commitment to line its pockets and stuff the players.

In financial terms, England are about as well off as they usually are after a Test match, having decided to cash their winners' cheque rather than frame it as a collector's item, but also having forked out a percentage of it in over-rate and deportment fines after Adelaide.

Michael Atherton, the captain, confirmed yesterday what everyone already knew, in that he had demanded before this tour that England played their Test cricket with a little more venom than has hitherto been the case. He did, however, make the (unarguable) point that no Test side had a better disciplinary record than England over the past few years, neither was he about to allow the threat of an International Cricket Council referee dilute England's commitment to winning here.

"John Reid [the match referee] has spoken to me about one or two individuals in this series," Atherton said yesterday, "and I have passed on those observations to the players. However, it is still difficult for a player to instantly recall anything I might have said when the heat is on, and you can't go into a game of cricket worrying about the referee.

"I applaud the ICC's efforts to clean up the game, and all my players know that John Reid is not out here for a holiday. However, I still want our boys to play as hard as they possibly can, and inevitably it will have the odd consequence. Lewis got finedin Adelaide, which was fair enough. We're not quibbling with that, but I personally think it's been a very well-behaved Ashes contest.''

What Atherton wants now is for the series to be evened up as well as even-tempered, and he is well aware that England's best results in recent years have been, perversely, on the kind of "non-English" pitch that prevails here in Perth. This one is a bit like Lewis's head - hard, shiny, and bald.

Apart from the extra bounce, the ball also swings in Perth, notably when the afternoon breeze known as the Fremantle Doctor arrives. What it rarely does is assist the spinners, which makes it likely that England will go into the match without Philip Tufnell who, in any event, has been asked to bowl so negatively out here that he has more or less forgotten how to take wickets.

England will also, in all probablity, change the winning formula that was forced upon them in Adelaide and revert to six specialist batsmen. They only had five of them fit in Adelaide, thanks to the fact that England's traditional flair for organisational efficiency led to Mark Ramprakash arriving the day after the Test match started.

Atherton is not that much of an optimist to believe that England can get away once again with having Steven Rhodes at No 6, although, on the other hand, he is being over-optimistic when he talks, as he did yesterday, about Ramprakash being able to bowl off-spin if required. The only decision left to take, therefore, is to choose between Lewis and Tufnell for the final place.

As for Australia, they are not about to jettison Shane Warne despite worries about him being jaded, and will replace the injured Damien Fleming and the discarded Peter McIntyre by perming two from Glenn McGrath, Brendon Julian and Jo Angel. McGrath is a near certainty, and Julian, the left-armer, will probably get the vote ahead of Angel on the grounds of adding extra variety.

Julian did not uproot many trees when he toured England in 1993, taking five Test wickets at an average for 58, and earlier this summer he was relegated to 12th man by Western Australia. However, since then he has recovered his form, while Angel's impressive record of 37 wickets in six Sheffield Shield games is counterbalanced by the fact that he has been used as cannon fodder in his three Test appearances. The bowler England would least liked to have faced, however, is Paul Reiffel, who has somewhat curiously been overlooked.

AUSTRALIA (probable): M A Taylor (capt), M J Slater, D C Boon, M E Waugh, S R Waugh, G R Blewett, I A Healy (wkt), S K Warne, B P Julian, C J McDermott, G D McGrath.

ENGLAND (probable): M A Atherton (capt), G A Gooch, M W Gatting, G P Thorpe, J P Crawley, M R Ramprakash, S J Rhodes (wkt), C C Lewis, P A J DeFreitas, A R C Fraser, D E Malcolm.

England's Mike Gatting appears likely to make the fifth Ashes Test in Perth his last. Gatting said in a radio interview yesterday that he is likely to step down, along with Graham Gooch. "I'm seriously thinking about it," the 37-year-old former captain said. "I might do the same as Graham. I'll have a chat with a few people and then see what happens.''