Cricket: Healy's frolic is a gambol for the gambler

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The Independent Online
LUCK and leather-hunting are sometimes mentioned in the same breath; the odd cricketing braveheart may announce he was lucky to be on the field when Bradman, Border, Sobers or a Chappell amassed any one of a hundred hundreds but he doesn't really mean it. The bitter truth for an opponent is that leather-hunting's best mate is mostly lost opportunity.

None of Alec Stewart's men, least of all the captain himself, is likely to acknowledge there was anything heart-warming about sharing Ian Healy's hometown hundred. Dispassionate may be one way to laud Stephen Waugh's latest runfest but Healy's scything cuts, uppercuts and heavy hooks can best be termed a slugfest, a bit of "biffo".

The danger for Stewart's men would be to think it was a run of bad luck rather than their own shortcomings that helped the partnership to rocket Australia towards a total undreamed of during a shaky beginning.

England's luck was bad only once - on the second morning when Darren Gough's short one fell from Healy's body on to the leg stump and the bail failed to dislodge; the rest, all first-day mishaps - Alan Mullally's extraordinary early interception of Stewart's throw to run out Waugh, and the late dropped catches of each batsman by Angus Fraser and Nasser Hussain - were simply bad cricket.

Those three moments and the way Healy chanced his batting arm sharply define what most certainly remains a wide gap between England's approach to Test cricket and Australia's. Is there an English batsman likely to ride his luck in a crisis, as Healy did, as Botham used to? Would this Australian team, even in tough, hot humid conditions, succumb to such elementary errors in the field at similarly crucial times?

Historically, Mullally's sin has been cleansed in the park juniors - stand behind the stumps to receive a return - but he is a fast bowler and long, long ago a fellow member of his union was overheard to define "gross ignorance" as "144 fast bowlers", although he did laugh as he said it.

Coaches like to remind their charges that catches win matches; it's dropped catches that might win this one for Australia. In the first session on the second day Waugh and Healy - the wicketkeeper's aggression suggested a breakfast of not cornflakes, but raw meat - added exactly 100, a fierce flurry of runs to give Australia a winning sniff that had seemed exclusively England's when Taylor's batsmen were lunch-drunk midway through day one.

The saucy 71 by No 9 Damien Fleming was merely a bells and whistles accessory to that main game, a romp that signalled how total was England's dilapidation. It did, however, reflect a spirit that's running through Australian cricket at the moment, indeed the nation - we're gamblers, we ride our luck and we're feeling luckier than ever.

Baccarat used only to be played in darkened, dangerous back alleys, but with the year 2000 and its Olympian celebrations seductively close the message is to go for broke - bright flashing lights announce that casinos are now legal, that we can play card machines in pubs 24 hours. And we still punt on two flies climbing a wall, but now it's legal on Sundays.

This "we'll see you and raise you" philosophy has had a seat at Australia's cricket selection table for some time. Only the Australian selectors thought it was a good idea to split the captaincy between Taylor and Steve Waugh and to differ- entiate sharply between limited-overs players and Test players.

Only they thought Colin Miller could be a success on the recent tour of Pakistan. That's Colin Miller of the average pen-portrait, the journeyman from Nowheresville, definitely not the flavour of the month among us critics. A useful bits-and-pieces bowler who can turn his hand to swing or spin, but from Tasmania and old, too.

The high-risk selection philosophy has been a winner and has generated an intriguing edge among the players. And the selectors don't mean to discard it. Their latest trick was to nominate Ricky Ponting for this Test, and to get him in they chopped one of the successes of the Pakistan tour, Darren Lehmann.

The reason, revealed publicly by the selector Allan Border (in itself a risky departure from the orthodoxy of maintaining selection room secrecy) was that Lehmann prefers spin whereas Ponting is a Gabba specialist and best against the pace England were expected to serve up.

Ponting is known as Punter to his team-mates, appropriate given the circumstances surrounding his selection. Forecasting what the Australian selectors might do next is risky, but it does seem logical that if England have correctly identified Justin Langer's weakness as a tendency to fall leg before then the selectors might take a gamble on Ponting at No 3 later in the series.

But that will be of little concern to an England management with more pressing problems - Mike Atherton's lack of form and fitness and what might have been if they hadn't given rusty Australia so many breaks on the very first day of the first Test of the series.