ENGLAND'S cricket team does not have to do anything too spectacular to raise a cheer these days, and when the announcer informed the crowd yesterday morning that Michael Atherton had launched his captaincy by winning the toss, it caused so much excitement that they very nearly broke into a Mexican wave.
The mood was just as jaunty inside the press box when England, new skipper still at the tiller on 72 not out, were bobbing along in mid-afternoon at 156 for 3. 'Another England run riot story,' someone yawned, at which point three wickets disappeared - Atherton's included - in as many overs.
However, with no little assistance from John Emburey's bat, an implement no less effective for the fact that it is more likely to be advertised in Farmer's Weekly than the MCC Coaching Manual, England managed to end the day on 276 for 9. Hardly a triumph, admittedly, but in the context of what has gone before this summer, not to mention a far from trustworthy pitch, a sigh of satisfaction was almost permissible.
The surface that came as such a great surprise to England two days before the game is a mostly genial character, given to intermittently crusty moods. There are two bounces, mostly low and lower, two paces, mostly slow and slower, and despite the fact that it has less grass than a football goalmouth in March, the occasional delivery has seamed extravagantly.
England, having whistled up Emburey as their second spinner, may therefore come to regret yesterday morning's decision to omit Steve Watkin, who seams the ball more than anyone in the squad, and is a better bowler than Paul Reiffel, who followed up his Headingley success with five more wickets yesterday. It was not a great day for Wales. Shortly after Watkin was arriving back in Cardiff for Glamorgan's match against Warwickshire, Matthew Maynard was arriving back in the Edgbaston pavilion with a nine-ball zero against his name.
While Devon Malcolm was odds on to be left out, the Watkin decision was a curious one given the new captain's pre-match oratory, in which he only just stopped short of describing the Glamorgan bowler as an amalgam of Bedser, Statham and Shackleton. Having watched Reiffel produce two of the deliveries of the summer, which defeated both Nasser Hussain and Peter Such, and might, in another era, have also defeated Bradman, it is a decision Atherton might come to regret.
Reiffel's first victim, in the sixth over of the game, was Graham Gooch, who made 0 and 0 on his debut here against Australia in 1975, and his not especially fond memories of Edgbaston will not have been improved by the pawky jab that resulted in a low but comfortable catch to second slip.
Robin Smith might have got away with a shortish ball from Mark Waugh that seamed back on him to clip the top of off stump had he not been initially shaping up to cut, while Maynard was out to the fifth ball of Tim May's first over, caught at silly point off pad and glove. Maynard is normally such a confident player, but yesterday he batted as though he had just seen a ghost, or an England selector in Cardiff, which is more or less the same thing.
From the here-we-go-again position of 76 for 3, Atherton and his first lieutenant Alec Stewart partially repaired the situation with a partnership of such authority that England looked as though they might manage what used to be known as a cricket score before they began their freefall towards mediocrity a few years ago.
Atherton was his quiet, unfussy self, while Stewart also played in character, either giving the ball a ferocious thump (as with one pull for six off Shane Warne) or employing one of his trademark on-drives, where the ball flies to the boundary with barely a nudge from what is either a 6lb bat, or testimony to his remarkable timing.
However, Stewart - as far too many England batsmen tend to do when well set - then donated his wicket rather than sold it, getting a leading edge back to Warne with a limp-wristed, across the line, nothing sort of shot. Two balls later, Atherton was gone, although he at least had an excuse in that the delivery from Reiffel that hit off stump barely rose above ankle height.
In his next over, Reiffel then struck Hussain's off stump with such a lethal leg cutter that it very nearly turned Hussain round, and despite another mini recovery led by Graham Thorpe and Emburey with a seventh-wicket partnership of 55, Thorpe again betrayed his ability with a shot that was straight out of the Sunday League. May slipped in a wide one, and Thorpe very nearly slipped a disc chasing it.
A thin edge to the wicketkeeper was the outcome, and the rest of the innings was an exercise in seeing whether Emburey could drive Australia's bowlers (as he has done to most international teams) completely round the bend with a method that, in its way, makes him one of the most entertaining batsmen England have ever produced.
There were times when Warne was bowling to Emburey when it was hard to tell who was having more difficulty reading who. Yesterday Emburey used his own googly (the on-side nurdle with a non-existent back lift that shoots away past gully) pretty sparingly, but there was still plenty on offer for the connoisseur, including a ball from May that Emburey shouldered arms to from the down-on-one- knee sweep position.
A full toss from Warne was hoiked over midwicket for six, and shortly before the close Emburey completed the most entertaining half-century of the series. Unfortunately, Reiffel had by then struck twice more to remove Martin Bicknell and Such, and while Emburey is still there on 55 not out, it is wickets that England require from the old boy today.
FIFTH CORNHILL TEST SCOREBOARD
(First day: England won toss)
ENGLAND - First Innings
G A Gooch c Taylor b Reiffe. . . . . . . . . . . . . 18
(24 mins, 20 balls)
* M A Atherton b Reiffel. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .72
(192 mins, 157 balls, 9 fours)
R A Smith b M Waugh . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .21
(67 mins, 59 balls, 2 fours)
M P Maynard c S Waugh b May. . . . . . . . . . . . . .0
(11 mins, 9 balls)
] A J Stewart c and b Warne . . . . . . . . . . . . .45
(81 mins, 82 balls, 6 fours, 1 six)
G P Thorpe c Healy b May. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .37
(77 mins, 53 balls, 6 fours)
N Hussain b Reiffel. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .3
(8 mins, 10 balls)
J E Emburey not out . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .55
(158 mins, 152 balls, 5 fours, 1 six)
M P Bicknell c M Waugh b Reiffel1 . . . . . . . . . .4
(66 mins, 59 balls, 1 four)
P M Such b Reiffel. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1
(2 mins, 3 balls)
M C Ilott not out . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 3
(21 mins, 11 balls)
Extras (b4, lb6, nb7) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .17
Total (for 9, 361 min, 101 overs). . . . . . . . . .276
Fall: 1-17 (Gooch), 2-71 (Smith), 3-76 (Maynard), 4-156 (Stewart), 5-156 (Atherton), 6-160 (Hussain), 7-215 (Thorpe), 8-262 (Bicknell), 9-264 (Such).
Bowling: Hughes 19-4-53-0 (nb1) (6-2-9-0, 4-1-8-0, 3-1-6-0, 1-0-11-0, 5-0-19-0); Reiffel 22-3-71-5 (nb5) (8-0-41-1, 8-2-20-2, 6-1-10-2); M Waugh 15-5-43-1 (nb3) (11-4-30-1, 4-1-13-0); S Waugh 5-2-4-0; May 19- 9-32-2 (9-3-25-1, 10-6-7-1); Warne 21-7-63-1 (12-4-45- 1, 8-2-18-0, 1-1-0-0).
Progress: (First day): 50: 64 min, 15.2 overs. Lunch: 93-3 (Atherton 43, Stewart 12) 33 overs. 100: 132 min, 36.3 overs. 150: 178 mins, 49.2 overs. Tea: 194-6 (Thorpe 26, Emburey 7) 66 overs. 200: 244 mins, 66.5 overs. New ball: 247-7, 89.2 overs. 250: 316 mins, 90.2 overs.
Atherton's 50: 137 min, 111 balls, 7 fours.
Emburey's 50: 144 min, 141 balls, 4 fours, 1 six.
AUSTRALIA: M J Slater, M A Taylor, D C Boon, M E Waugh, * A R Border, S R Waugh, I A Healy, P R Reiffel, M G Hughes, S K Warne, T B A May.
Umpires: J H Hampshire, D R Shepherd, A G T Whitehead.
Match Referee: C H Lloyd
Scoreboard, page 34