Cricket: Gough is key to glory tilt

Stephen Brenkley in Sydney looks at the options facing David Lloyd
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The Independent Online
ANY twanging from the direction of Neil Fairbrother and Darren Gough in the next day or two will seriously undermine England's chances of winning the Australian triangular tournament. The Lancashire and Yorkshire hamstrings are in delicate condition and the sort of sound which might emanate from them will be music to nobody's ears with the team urgently requiring fresh inspiration. Three weeks ago England were on a roll, suddenly they are rolling over.

Fairbrother has missed the last two qualifying games because the tendon is stretched, Gough left the field with something similar on Friday night against Australia. As the middle-order stabiliser and the leader of the attack in his pomp, respectively, their presence in the Carlton & United Series finals against Australia is not easily overestimated. England might have won five matches to qualify but they have also lost four of the last five.

"We've qualified, that's what matters," said the coach, David Lloyd. "We've played two of the best teams in the world, beaten one of them 3- 2 and given the other a run for their money and lost 3-2. As far as I'm concerned we start afresh now like a three-match Texaco Trophy series at home and that's what I'll be telling them."

Lloyd's bullishness was perhaps understandable for while Australia have been winning they have looked unconvincing. England have simply failed to exploit their weaknesses.

"We're not getting enough runs," said Lloyd. "We've fielded brilliantly and the bowling has been spot on most of the time but we're simply not batting well enough and we haven't been doing for a bit. In the last match a lot got 30s and 40s, none of them went on. We haven't been batting together as a team."

Only Graeme Hick, who has scored three hundreds, and Fairbrother, with two half- centuries, including an extraordinarily wise 81 not out in his last appearance in Perth, have been regularly on top of their game. If poor form elsewhere is forgivable it has been less easy to justify the batting method adopted in the final two qualifying matches in Sydney.

The pitches, their preparation having been affected by 10 days of intermittent rain, were hopeless for one-day cricket but England's batting matched them. Too many of them tried to place and nudge when it demanded some good old- fashioned selective hitting. If that was not an elementary conclusion against Sri Lanka on Wednesday it should have been blindingly obvious against Australia on Friday.

Tiredness has played its part. Alec Stewart, the captain, and Nasser Hussain, of the top- order batsmen, have been on tour since October. It has been a demanding schedule and they would hardly be human if they were not looking forward to embarking for home. Ten one-day matches in 26 days (a possible 13 in 35 now they have reached the final) in five venues is a tough programme and coming on the back of a losing Ashes series it is monumentally so.

Stewart and Hussain will see this through but if they have insisted on sounding upbeat their batting has begun to tell a different tale. The finals of the tournament, with the $100,000 first prize and the huge stimulus it will give the winners for the World Cup, should provoke them into one last Antipodean hurrah.

When England set off on this tour it was the bowling which was ajudged to be the weaker part of the game. How long ago that seems now. Gough has been marvellous throughout and it would be rough justice on him and his team if he were to be denied one final tilt at Australia. He must be weary but that smile has continued to beam. He is the only England player to have appeared in every international this summer.

Mullally has hardly been less valuable in this tournament. He has been relentlessly accurate, has swung the ball when necessary and has been notoriously difficult to score from. Only Adam Dale, the increasingly impressive Australian new-ball seamer, has been more ungenerous to batsmen.

Lloyd will make it clear to his team as he did to others who asked that Australia too have not been outstanding. They have used plenty of bowlers but Glenn McGrath and the admirable Dale apart they have looked fairly prosaic. That assessment includes Shane Warne who Mark Ealham launched for a mighty six into the second tier of the O'Reilly Stand on Friday. A few more runs, a little less apprehension and England can win this series for the first time in 12 years.

Unless the tourists are indulging in obfuscation techniques to confuse the opposition, the indications are good for both Gough and Fairbrother. Lloyd said absence would not be the end of the world. But it might be the end of the tournament.