Cricket / Fourth Test: Reiffel has England on their knees: Australians have the Ashes in their grasp as Gooch's men prove fragile under fire

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The Independent Online
SO, AFTER all the debate about whether to change a drawing team, a Headingley specialist was brought in for the fourth Cornhill Test - only he was selected for Australia.

Paul Reiffel, a military medium seam bowler of the type that serve as foot-soldiers in county bowling attacks, transformed the match late on its third day with the sort of bowling that was once the preserve of Englishmen.

He produced a spell of four wickets for 17 runs, mainly by pitching the ball up and moving it off the seam, to destroy England's fragile reply to Australia's mammoth 653 for 4 declared and leave them facing their fourth innings- defeat in seven matches.

The 26-year-old, who ended with 5 for 65, is playing his fifth Test and first of the tour. At Edgbaston in the one-day match he was utterly destroyed by Robin Smith, and had Merv Hughes not made it on to the pitch the responsibility of carrying the attack may have overwhelmed him.

But, after Hughes made the breakthrough, dismissing Mark Lathwell for nought third ball, and off-spinner Tim May took care of Smith, he effectively did just that with Hughes used sparingly and Shane Warne innocuous.

Though Keith Fletcher suggested his success was partly due to the deterioration of the wicket, his consistent line and length contrasted with much of England's earlier bowling. 'It was cutting about a bit rather than swinging,' Reiffel said. 'It was a wicket where you had to bowl straight and try to hit it as hard as you can. If you did that, it did a bit.'

It had not done much at the beginning of the day as Allan Border reached his second Test double hundred and took his team to Headingley's highest total. Border, who batted more than nine hours, and Steve Waugh, who made 157 not out, added 322 for Australia's seventh-best partnership in Tests. The final total surpassed anything here by the Yorkshire of Hutton or Sutcliffe and beat the unlikely previous Leeds best of 630 by Somerset in 1901. Somerset won that game despite making 87 in the first innings - a feat which suggests Somerset had a Botham long before Ian.

England, as usual these days, were dreaming longingly of the great man but there were no miracles yesterday and, barring some today, Gooch may be tendering his resignation tomorrow night. Fletcher said again he wished him to continue but that it should be Gooch's decision. The captain himself would not talk during the match, at least not on that subject.

At the wicket he spoke briefly on the subject of short-pitched bowling to Dickie Bird, though he was hardly subjected to much, and at more length with his bat. While Lathwell's early dismissal, edging a flat-footed push, was a depressing blow, Gooch's departure was, as usual, the key wicket. England's conundrum is that if they change the captain they are likely to lose their best batsman as well. He may remain on the team-sheet but the captaincy inspires him to perform at his very best. It is a shame it does not do the same for the team.

England's plight is not helped by the lack of suitable replacements. Mike Gatting and Hugh Morris cannot win a place and the main contenders, Alec Stewart and, to a lesser extent, Michael Atherton have been struggling for form. The latter, at least, rediscovered some yesterday. Taking his cue from Smith, who thumped his first ball square for four and clipped his third to the leg boundary, Atherton drove his first delivery square for four. He continued to bat well, especially when joined by Gooch, the pair slipping comfortably into their familiar partnership like someone settling into his favourite armchair.

They added 108 in 38 overs when Atherton left a Reiffel off- cutter which snaked back and rattled his stumps. Three balls later Graham Thorpe, feet moving but not into the right places, edged to wicketkeeper Ian Healy. One run later Gooch himself was on his way, leg before playing back to another Reiffel off-cutter.

The most relieved man was Healy, who had missed a stumping chance offered by Gooch on 19. Gooch, who displayed aggressive intent from his arrival, advanced well down the pitch only to be beaten by the turn. Fortunately for him so was Healy. Fielders have paid dearly for such lapses, notably India's wicketkeeper Kiran More, who saw Gooch add nearly 300 further runs after he missed him at Lord's in 1990. Certainly, the way Gooch despatched Warne's first ball through the covers, then lifted him for six over mid-on to bring up his half-century, had suggested a third successive Headingley Test century.

While May was unlucky then, he did claim Smith's wicket, the batsman going down the pitch and driving the ball back into May's midriff. That brought in Stewart, who had a 20-minute 'look', played Reiffel through cover off the back foot for four then fell foul of his propensity for pad-play, giving a pad-bat catch to Michael Slater at short cover. That was Reiffel's first wicket; his last - so far - was Nasser Hussain, chopping a shortish ball on to his stumps.

Andrew Caddick was his usual obdurate self, batting out the remaining 45 minutes and Martin Bicknell played out 28. But with two days remaining and the rain, perversely, falling after play each night, England have an awesome task to even save the game.

'It was a disappointing day,' Fletcher said. 'There was the odd good ball, the odd bad shot, the odd bit of bad luck. We have a chance of saving it but it is going to be difficult. The pitch is going to get worse, the cracks are opening up and it will seam off those. The bounce is a bit up and down. We thought the seamers would be difficult to play and so it has proved. It just did not happen the first two days.' This is awfully similar to the Indian litany, when England always seemed to be playing on a different pitch from their opponents, but Fletcher insisted that had England been bowling today Bicknell and Caddick could have done what Reiffel did.

After Friday, when Australia scored 306 for the loss of one wicket, a journalist asked Fletcher if it was his worst day in charge. A series of nightmare performances in India and Sri Lanka flashed through his mind before he admitted: 'I don't think so, we've had a few.' Last night, no one had the heart to ask him again.

(Photographs omitted)

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