SUSPICIONS THAT England's dazzling start in this tournament was merely a false dawn that would soon become just another dark and stormy night were allayed yesterday. They won their fourth match in the Carlton & United series, their second against Australia, and moved once more to the top of the qualifying table.
If the victory alone was heartening enough for England after the thrashing they received two days before, the way they kept their heads was exemplary. They are winning the tight games. This may be because they do not have the weaponry to win comfortably but it is still a canny habit to possess.
For the first time, their batting performed. Their total was the third- highest in the 98 limited-overs internationals that have been played here. That seemed to be a pertinent number as far as Graeme Hick was concerned. Four years ago he had reached that score in the Test match when the England captain, Michael Atherton, declared and deprived him of a maiden hundred against Australia. Atherton was present yesterday to see him do it.
There was not much chance that Alec Stewart would do likewise, though the odd joker in another packed house yelled for the batsmen to come off when Hick reached 98. But this time he made his century and his third- wicket partnership of 190 with Nasser Hussain, somewhat astonishingly making his first fifty in a limited-overs international, placed England in a position of overwhelming authority.
Hick batted like Hick can and sometimes does. He came in at the fall of the first wicket in the first over - the second time in the series that one of the openers has gone so early - and settled down to building an innings. There was a hint of uncertainty at first because he was aware he had tried to rattle on too quickly in England's opening matches.
There was not much that was spectacular about him. He assembled runs rather than attempting to slog them. He placed the ball well though he hit harder as the innings went on and hoisted Shane Warne for a six high into the stand at mid-wicket. It was all assertive stuff and it was another of those Hick innings that might have left observers wondering why he has not done it more often. He is rightly one of the first names on the team sheet for England's one-day team but this was only his third century in 79 matches. Sachin Tendulkar, for example, has 20, Mark Waugh has 12.
Hussain is not one of the first names on the team sheet and actually he was not on it at all until Graham Thorpe's back played up again. Hussain still could not make the side until it became obvious that England needed his class. His 93 came from 114 balls and owed much to placement and running rather than power.
A measure of England's controlled, unflappable performance was that after 15 overs when the pinch-hitting is supposed to take place they were on 55 for 2 and after 20 had only taken that total to 77. In the last 30 overs, therefore, they made another 205.
It was not exactly an innings to condemn pinch-hitting to the grave but it placed it in perspective. It was also helped by some ground fielding that was abject, totally un-Australian and which their captain, Steve Waugh, quickly recognised after the match.
No side had ever made as many as 283 to win a 50-over match in Sydney and as Australia had made 260 only last week to break the previous record England should have been clear favourites, and Darren Gough took two early wickets which only shortened the odds. At No 6 in their order Australia had Michael Bevan, whose figures appear to make him the most successful of one-day batsmen, and at No 7 they had Greg Blewett, who has English bowlers for breakfast.
As with England, the third-wicket partnership was the important one. Mark Waugh and Darren Lehmann are players of contrasting styles but how they made England run. When Waugh launched Ashley Giles, playing in the series for the first time, for six to reach his 50 off 55 balls it was clear they were not going to go quietly.
The uneasy feeling was beginning to grow that Australia were beginning to assume command when Waugh hit Adam Hollioake in the air behind square. Robert Croft took the catch on the run to his left. Two balls later Steve Waugh poked one to mid-off.
There was still some life in the Aussies yet but Lehmann went to a beauty from Alan Mullally that swooped under his bat and Bevan never got going. There are times when it is silly to take too many risks in one-day cricket, others when it is selfish to take none. Bevan leaned towards the latter category.
England might still have found themselves in the cart. Mullally and Gough (who bowled splendidly, conceding only 17 off his last six overs) were bowled out. It meant that Giles, who had gone for 19 off two indifferent overs, had to bowl three of the final five including the last. But he responded with something approaching calmness and picked up a wicket. Here was a temperament for the big occasion.
This just about rescued Sydney's reputation for spin. In all, five spinners bowled 27 overs yesterday and took one wicket for 180 runs. But, as the series progresses, England are entering a sunnier afternoon.
West Indies suffer, page 19