CRICKET / Injury worries take the gloss off England's celebration

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The Independent Online
As England's recent aeroplane journeys have taken place in the kind of atmosphere that would normally follow a cockpit announcement that the starboard engine had just fallen off, it made a pleasant change to witness a near full-house of smiling fa ces onyesterday's flight from Melbourne to Sydney.

However, the one countenance that remained mostly dark belonged to the captain, Michael Atherton, whose relief at the World Series Cup victory over Australia A was significantly diluted by the fact that he personally had little to celebrate.

After the humiliating weekend defeats at the hands of the Australian Academy, Atherton was deeply disappointed to have played no part in the MCG day-nighter, neither would he have particularly enjoyed Alec Stewart stealing some of his thunder at what hasbecome something of a collector's item, a winning England press conference. He may also have raised half an eyebrow at Raymond Illingworth's sudden availability for interview after a couple of weeks of deathly silence.

However, the main reason for Atherton's less than chipper exterior is altogether more serious. Three years ago he was operated on for a degenerative condition of the lower spine, and although the back trouble which forced him to miss the World Series match is apparently unconnected, Atherton has long been aware that he has a potentially career-threatening problem.

He was told at the time of the operation that he would probably be able to play for another 10 years, but that there were no guarantees. He rarely travels without a bottle of pain killers on hand, and has now had a cortisone injection in the hope that itwill clear up whatever is causing his current problem.

Atherton was, he said, "desperate" to play in today's day-nighter against Zimbabwe at the SCG, but conceded that the pain "stretching down the left side of the back all the way to behind the knee" had rendered him virtually immobile on the morning of theAustralia A game. "The old problem was on the other side of the back," he said, "and did not stretch so far down. But it is obviously a real worry whenever I do get any pain in that area."

He will also be aware that Stewart received good reviews for his leadership in Melbourne, and Stewart certainly stood out in comparison with Damien Martyn, whose defensive fields when England had lost all their front-line batsmen with 21 overs still to go was typical of the stereotyped thinking which governs one-day cricket.

Stewart also earned bonus points for jumping in at a time when there was enough vapour pouring from Philip Tufnell's ears to have run a Turkish bath, although the England camp were not best pleased at Tufnell being fined around £350 for hurling the ball into the ground at the end of personally frustrating over.

John Reid, the International Cricket Council referee, issued a headmasterly "I won't stand for any nonsense" type of warning at the start of this winter's hostilities, but it was a touch ironic that England's first overt display of passion for some time should have led to him pickpocketing Tufnell's wallet. England are firmly of the opinion that Tufnell found his way on to the umpire's report card more from reputation than behaviour liable to incite a riot.

Day-night crowds in Australia do not, in any event, regard anything that happens on the field as their cue to start disturbing the peace. The cricket is far less relevant to the gladatorial, "let's get pissed" type of atmosphere, and there is more than enough evidence to suggest that a sizeable proportion of punters are scarcely aware which team is playing which by the time the floodlights come on.

When some of these spectators start talking about needing four an over, they are far more likely to be tottering towards the bar than peering at the scoreboard, and when Graham Thorpe found himself being pelted with golf balls and (full) cans of beer on Tuesday night there was a brief threat of the teams leaving the field.

The Melbourne police made 150 arrests, and the post-match cleaners discovered, among the meat pie wrappers and polystyrene chip cartons, a quantity of knives not normally associated with the type used to peel an apple. Australia markets these day-night matches with an ultra-aggressive hype, and can scarcely expect the terraces to be populated with people discussing the finer points about whether England requires their mid-off to be moved a touch squarer.

Halogen-powered bulbs are a great drawing card, but the lights are permanently out at the ICC, who have yet to fathom that day-night internationals in Australia bring cricket into far greater disrepute than an England spinner flinging a ball into the ground.