Cricket: Faltering spine of England's batting

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A BAD BACK could deprive England of their most experienced player this morning, when they begin their Test match against Sri Lanka at The Oval. Michael Atherton, who has played 84 Tests for his country, has long suffered from back problems and yesterday Steve James, the Glamorgan opener, was called up as cover.

Atherton back scares are nothing new, though this one is thought to have been brought on by all the travelling during the recent one-day series. According to the chairman of selectors, David Graveney, if the match had started yesterday, Atherton would not have been able to take the field despite having a brief net and some gentle fielding practice.

It would be unusual for the opener to miss out. To date he has 63 consecutive Tests under his belt, which is only two short of equalling the England record held by Ian Botham and Alan Knott. Considering hisback, it is a remarkable record and one that also highlights his importance to England as a batsman.

Despite Alec Stewart's matter of fact attitude to the injury - psychology has been a recent dimension to England's game - Atherton's absence would be a severe blow to England's plans of winning this match.

"Athers is a top player," conceded Stewart, "but if he ain't fit, he ain't fit. Steve James has already played a Test this year and he has carried on his good form for Glamorgan."

Coincidence or not, it was the second time in two days that England had sent for reinforcements beyond the Severn Bridge: confronted unexpectedly by a dry and bare pitch on Tuesday, they had already whistled up off-spinner Robert Croft.

A day is a long time in the preparation of a Test pitch, however, and if Croft's inclusion looked a certainty 24 hours earlier, the signals - after the groundstaff's "greening-up" of the pitch overnight with a plastic groundsheet - have since become blurred.

"I don't think the top will go like it did last year," said Stewart, who later implied that Ben Hollioake will now be included, despite picking up a pounds 1,000 fine for turning up to yesterday's practice 45 minutes late.

If the 20-year-old all-rounder does play, he will have been treated far more leniently than his former Surrey team-mate Chris Lewis was in 1996. After being fined, Lewis was subsequently dropped from the side.

To be fair, though, Lewis was actually late for the match itself, famously claiming that a puncture had delayed him - an excuse Ray Illingworth, then England supremo, clearly chose not to believe. Hollioake's reason for being tardy was even more mundane: he apparently overslept after failing to receive his alarm call in the team's Chelsea hotel three miles away.

Despite the disarray in preparation and the caution with which one-off Tests tend to be treated, England's captain was confident that all was well, and that his side would continue in the positive vein that saw them overhaul a 0-1 deficit against South Africa.

"I've been stressing to the boys that this is not just a one-off match, but one we want to win," said Stewart. "Ideally, I'd like to win three Tests in a row and finish the season on a high."

To achieve that will not be as straightforward as many believe. Sri Lanka may have a modest record since their elevation to Test cricket in 1982 - 11 wins from 83 Tests - but they are a talented and motivated side with much to prove, despite their three visits to England having brought two defeats and a draw.

This time, they have the players to achieve more, though a long batting line-up is far stronger than a bowling attack carried by the wristy off- spinner Muttiah Muralitharan. According to the Sri Lanka manager, Muralitharan can spin it on the M4 and his 52 Test wickets this year - one more than Angus Fraser has taken - have come from just seven Tests.

Although England would not admit it, the threat of Muralitharan, a huge spinner of the ball, is clearly worrying them. Yesterday, after the players had long dispersed, the groundstaff were still frantically brushing up the grass on the pitch in a bid to get moisture to it.

If it does green up in time, England will be clear favourites, though the toss could provide whoever wins it with the teasing dilemma of whether or not to bowl first. So far this summer England have tried that twice with only 50 per cent success. And that was with Atherton fit.