On the field, some things are going right. The bowlers have cleaned up the Australian tail, taking the last five wickets for 80 runs, and for 80 minutes at the end of the second day Nasser Hussain and Mark Ramprakash batted with style and verve in an unbroken stand worth 76, which left England 231 behind Australia.
But in the dressing-room, the mood is all Sturm und Drang. This cannot create the confident atmosphere that inspires positive cricket, especially when the wicket is taking more spin, and there is an Australian leggie licking his lips. The manner of Atherton's dismissal may help create a feeling of disenchantment about England's consistent run of ill-fortune, and this is one reason why Australia must be favourites to take this game, and retain the Ashes. It may have been a dismal week for Australia off the field, but they can still put a decent performance together on it.
Atherton, who has had an undistinguished series (64 runs at 16.00 before Adelaide) went to bat needing only one run to make 6,000 runs in Test cricket, and he made a meal of it. During the first two overs he faced he could scarcely get bat on ball. Eventually, a push into the covers brought the elusive run, and slowly he began to play with more assurance and finally with the sort of freedom he has not shown so far.
By the 24th over of the England innings there was a spinner at both ends, but neither could cramp Atherton's style. He had scored only three boundaries, but they are hard to come by on this ground, and he was hitting the ball harder than the Australians had done. Then, in the 29th over, he angled a sharp leg break from Stuart MacGill off the edge of the bat to Mark Taylor at first slip.
Taylor and Ian Healy, from behind the stumps, loudly claimed the catch. The conviction of the appeal convinced Justin Langer, fielding at backward point, that it must be out. Steve Bucknor, the experienced West Indian umpire at the bowler's end, clearly did not know whether the ball had carried, and when Taylor himself said he was not sure (you can read his lips on the television replay), Bucknor walked over to consult Steve Davis, the square-leg umpire. When he could not help, Bucknor signalled for an adjudication from the third umpire, a 29-year-old Australian named Paul Angley.
Atherton, an honourable man who walks when he believes he is out, stayed at the crease surrounded by Australian players, but before long he was trudging off the field shaking his head in a clear indication of dissent. Seeing replays on the big screen, it seemed the ball had carried, but when Channel 9 slowed the incident down, the commentators concluded it had not. It was already clear that, in the face of reasonable doubt, umpire Angley had not given Atherton the benefit of it.
Graham Gooch, England's tour manager, described Atherton's reaction as "upset", and indicated that this was under-statement. Not long after the close of play, Mark Taylor went to the England dressing-room hoping to reassure Atherton that he himself was still not sure whether the ball had carried, but the players were already on the bus back to the hotel, so Taylor had a "genial" five-minute conversation with Gooch instead. "In no way have we any complaint against Mark Taylor and the team," Gooch reported. "We don't want any bad blood."
Gooch was speaking at a press conference at which his own mood seemed relaxed, jocular even. He was anxious to let us know that he had written an official letter of complaint to the match referee, John Reid. He was reluctant to discuss the "couple of points" he had raised, and said it was not for him to comment on the umpire's decision, though he did remark that it had been taken "in a very short space of time".
Nothing happens now until the Australian Cricket Board receive a copy of Reid's report, with Gooch's letter attached, two or three days after the Test ends. Since the umpire's decision cannot be unmade, one casualty from the incident could be Angley's promising career.
Indeed, it is hard to say why Gooch made such a drama out of a dismissal, unless it was to soothe an unhappy batsman and to try to prevent the growth of a collective paranoia. If it does so, it was a shrewd act of therapeutic man-management. Maybe there is more to Gooch than meets the eye.
That is devoutly to be wished because this England team need all the help they can get. They got some from the weather yesterday, when the temperature fell by 30 degrees into the mid-70s. A cool breeze made conditions more tolerable for the bowlers, and they took advantage of them.
Only Langer, 108 not out overnight, exhibited the discipline required to take the Australian total to their target of 450, and when the last wicket fell at 391, Langer was 179 not out and had scored no less than 46 per cent of his team's runs. Yet star-status continues to elude him. When the Atherton Affair blew up later in the day, Langer's colleagues began to call him Arthur Morris.
Morris was a great opener whose 196 at The Oval in the 1948 Ashes series was completely obscured by Don Bradman's more memorable duck. "I'll stick with Arthur Morris," Langer said. He seems to describe a dressing-room that is not wounded by the Warne-Waugh Affair.
Given the weather, England had bowled Australia out cheaply, and the selectors' changes had been well justified. Peter Such spun the ball more as time went by, and his 3 for 99 was a harbinger of testing times for England's batsmen. Dean Headley, the other newcomer, had the best figures (4 for 97) without bowling as well as Darren Gough (3 for 103), whose run of ill-luck continued when Ramprakash dropped Glenn McGrath off his bowling. England's outcricket remained generally feeble.
England's batting was characteristically patchy. Atherton's form was beginning to compensate for the loss of Mark Butcher's. After his fine 116 and 40 in Brisbane, Butcher's scores have been 0, 1 and 7. Yesterday he was out offering no stroke to a ball from Colin Miller, the off-spinner, that pitched outside his off stump. The umpire judged that it would have hit the wicket and Butcher was in no position to argue with him. Far more serious, however, is the shocking batting form of Alec Stewart. In five innings in this series, his scores have been 8, 3, 38, 0 and 0, a total of 49, which puts his average at less than 10.00. In all, Stewart has faced only 54 balls, and yesterday's dismissal off bat and pad when confronted by a fairly ordinary off-spinner must have seriously damaged his confidence.
Unless he produces a remarkable second innings he will be forced to consider a number of options: dropping himself down the order and handing over the wicketkeeper's gloves to Warren Hegg are only two of them.
Batting failures, and Atherton's misfortune meant that three wickets had fallen for 84, left England once more on the edge. They were pulled back from it by Hussain and a dashing innings by Ramprakash, who will have astonished the Australians by starting to play the way he does for Middlesex. He had scored 45 runs off 75 balls at the close.
At 160 for 3 off 52 overs England were depending on the pair of them to take them towards a position from which they could move into territory beyond 400. But South Australia is a good place to strike out for the unknown.
Second day; Australia won toss
Australia - First Innings
J L Langer not out 179
(491 min, 351 balls, 13 fours)
R T Ponting c Hick b Gough 5
(Edged wafted drive shoulder high to second slip; 32 min, 28 balls)
I A Healy c Ramprakash b Headley 13
(Carved drive softly to cover; 39 min, 27 balls, 1 four)
D W Fleming lbw b Headley 12
(Beaten playing forward by late movement; 30 min, 22 balls, 2 fours)
S C G MacGill b Such 0
(Beaten by spin, bowled through gate; 6 min, 4 balls)
C R Miller lbw b Headley 11
(Played across straight delivery; 14 min, 9 balls, 2 fours)
G D McGrath c Stewart b Gough 10
(Edged to keeper diving low in front of first slip; 47 min, 27 balls, 1 four)
Extras (lb6, nb13) 19
Total (545 min, 125.5 overs) 391
Fall: 1-28 (Slater), 2-140 (Taylor), 3-156 (M Waugh), 4-264 (S Waugh), 5-274 (Ponting), 6-311 (Healy), 7-338 (Fleming), 8-339 (MacGill), 9-354 (Miller), 10-391 (McGrath).
Bowling: Gough 29.5-4-103-3 (nb6) (8-2-21-0 2-0-19-0 5-0-17-0 3-0-12- 0 7-2-21-2 2-0-3-0 2.5-0-10-1), Mullally 26-5-59-0 (4-0-8-0 5-0-14-0 2- 2-0-0 1-0-5-0 1-1-0-0 4-0-11-0 1-0-1-0 8-2-20-0), Headley 23-1-97-4 (nb6) (6-0-27-1 2-0-14-0 1-0-4-0 1-0-5-0 3-0-1 2-0 1-0-2-0 9-1-33-3), Such 38- 8-99-3 (nb1) (4-2-2-0 18-4-43-2 5-1-12-0 8-1-31-1 3-0-11-0), Ramprakash 9-1-27-0 (1-0-2-0 4-0-15-0 4-1-10-0).
Progress: Second day: 300 in 437 min, 102 overs. 350 in 494 min, 113.3 overs. Lunch 361-9 (Langer 157, McGrath 3) 116 overs. innings closed 2.19pm.
Langer 50: 121 min, 99 balls, 4 fours. 100: 277 min, 197 balls, 7 fours. 150: 433 min, 300 balls, 10 fours.
England - First Innings
M A Butcher lbw b Miller 6
(Hit on front pad offering no stroke to off-spinner; 47 min, 35 balls)
M A Atherton c Taylor b MacGill (TV replay) 41
(Deflection to first slip off top of bat;108 min, 92 balls, 2 fours)
N Hussain not out 58
(145 min, 112 balls, 6 fours)
*A J Stewart c Slater b Miller 0
(Routine bat and pad catch to short-leg;3 min, 3 balls)
M R Ramprakash not out 45
(80 min, 75 balls, 6 fours)
Extras (b1, lb3, w1, nb5) 10
Total (3 wkt, 193 min, 52 overs 160
Fall: 1-18 (Butcher), 2-83 (Atherton), 3-84 (Stewart).
To bat: J P Crawley, G A Hick, D Gough, D W Headley, A D Mullally, P M Such.
Bowling: McGrath 13-2-41-0 (nb6,w1) (8-2-19-0 5-0-22-0), Fleming 8-2- 22-0 (5-2-4-0 3-0-18-0), Miller 13-1-48-2, MacGill 15-2-28-1, M Waugh 3-0-17-0 (one spell each).
Progress: Tea 40-1 (Atherton 16, Hussain 11) 18 overs. 50 in 78 min, 20.1 overs. 100 in 126 min, 33.1 overs. 150 in 179 mins, 48.2 overs.
Hussain 50: 114 min, 95 balls, 6 fours.
Umpires: S A Bucknor and S J Davis Replay Umpire: P M Angley. Referee: J R ReidReuse content