THERE CAN seldom have been a less relevant fixture than the one currently being played in the world's largest cricket stadium between an England side lacking its Test attack and a Victoria team shorn of eight first-choice players. Indeed, the MCG has been so empty over the last few days that you could almost hear the clamour for places in the next Test. As these amount to perhaps two spots at most, the noise has not been deafening.
So far, the strongest claims have come from Graeme Hick, who scored 67, and Dean Headley. Mind you, against a side recognisable only by name as Victoria, it was difficult to draw any solid conclusions other than confirmation that Hick is a lambaster of second-rate bowling and that the England tail does not require the close attentions of a decent fast bowler to collapse.
In fact if the shortcomings of the opposition proved anything it was that Angus Fraser's struggle to find rhythm and nip are not over and while Headley was busy bowling himself into contention, Fraser was bowling himself out of it.
On an MCG pitch that had generous bounce and some occasional lateral movement, Headley consistently troubled the batsmen and deserved better than the two wickets he finished the day with. Headley can be distinctly slippery when the mood takes him and he was the only England bowler to hurry his opponents on an otherwise sluggish pitch.
Matthew Mott, a stodgy left-handed opener, edged a beauty that bounced and left him in the bowler's second over, while Graeme Vimpani, well taken by Graham Thorpe at first slip, was beaten for pace as he tried to cut. At one point, Victoria were 87 for 5 before a patient partnership between Shawn Craig and the wicketkeeper Peter Roach stopped the immediate rot and got within 50 runs of the follow-on target.
As one of the recognisable athletes in the squad, Headley also fielded pretty well, taking a smart catch by his ankles at mid-on and managing a run-out from the same position with a brilliant pick-up and direct hit to dismiss Jason Arnberger.
In a country where chances have to be taken in all walks of life, England's outfielding, and especially their catching, has come in for some justifiable criticism. Dean Jones, a former Test batsman and a terrific outfielder, is the latest to add his two cents' worth.
After watching the England bowlers not playing here perform a series of shuttle sprints after play had started, Jones, commentating on Channel 7, said he felt England would be better served by practising skills like catching rather than fitness.
Hearing the comments, England's coach, David Lloyd, not always the calmest of people when criticism is being dished out, went to put the record straight. On a quiet day, speculation that Lloyd had rowed with Jones, formerly captain of Derbyshire, began to spread like a bush fire.
In fact Lloyd, who is on a last warning from the England Cricket Board about his conduct, did not speak to Jones at all. Instead, he sought out the Channel 7 producer Margaret Hutchings to put the record straight. Apparently, he pointed out that had Jones been on the ground earlier, before play had begun, he would indeed have seen England practising catching and fielding.
For once, Lloyd was well within his rights to point out the inaccuracy. Unfortunately, in the wake of Graham Gooch's continuing curtness with the Australian media, it will probably be used to reinforce the belief that all Poms are whingers.
Actually two of the side, Hick and Ben Hollioake, had genuine cause for complaint and both were victims of liberal interpretations of the lbw law. Both were key dismissals as England lost their last five wickets for 17 runs, three of them to Jason Bakker, a medium-pacer of few pretensions.
In an ideal world, Hollioake, playing as a batting all-rounder, would be the answer to England's problems at No 7. As it was, only his second knock of the tour ended prematurely when he shuffled and played across a length ball that would have missed leg stump.
Later his bowling - his first stint of the tour - fared little better. Despite the important wicket of Brad Hodge, a centurion in this fixture four years ago, his spell was littered with half-volleys and no-balls. At 21, he still has enormous potential, but on the evidence here his graduation to becoming an all-rounder of Test class is patently still some way off.
That, by and large, is England's problem and it does not help in the creation of a balanced side when those who can bat cannot bowl and those who can bowl cannot bat. However, if this makes England's task of levelling the series in Adelaide that much more difficult, this match has at least given their captain, Alec Stewart, some much needed time in the middle. Amazingly, his century was only his second from the 46 first-class innings he has played this year.
The match, despite its lack of allure, may well have served a purpose by giving Thorpe a work-out, too. Over the past few series he has been England's most successful batsman against Australia. If Perth is anything to go by, England need Thorpe fit and firing, not watching from the sidelines with a corset on.
Second day of four, England won toss
ENGLAND - First Innings
(Overnight: 308 for 5)
M R Ramprakash c Roach b Bakker 78
G A Hick lbw b Gilbert 67
B C Hollioake lbw b Bakker 5
R D B Croft not out 0
D W Headley c Williams b Bakker 3
A R C Fraser c Williams b Davison 8
Extras (lb6 w1 nb1) 8
Total (128 overs) 373
Fall: 1-25 2-33 3-95 4-135 5-247 6-356 7-362 8-362 9-365
Bowling: Williams 27-7-84-1; Gilbert 29-7-63-2; Inness 31-10-95-1; Bakker 20- 6-45-3; Davison 19-3-77-2; Craig 2-0-3-0.
VICTORIA - First Innings
J L Arnberger run out 19
M P Mott c Stewart b Headley 0
G R Vimpani c Thorpe b Headley 11
*B J Hodge lbw b Hollioake 4
S A J Craig not out 39
J R Bakker c Headley b Croft 29
P J Roach not out 54
Extras (lb4 nb17) 21
Total (for 5, 69 overs) 177
Fall: 1-4 2-24 3-43 4-43 5-87.
To bat: B A Williams, A S Gilbert, M W H Inness, J M Davison.
Bowling: Headley 17-2-34-2; Fraser 15-5-30-0; Hollioake 11-0-43-1; Croft 21-4-48-1; Ramprakash 5-2-18-0.
Umpires: T A Prue and G T D Morrow.Reuse content