Cricket: Leaden-footed batsmen led merry dance

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The Independent Online
MORE PROOF at the WACA that cricket is, in the main, the mind game; when batsmen's feet do not move decisively, as was the case with England's in the first session of the Second Test, it is generally the sign of uncertain minds. That might have made England skittish, considering that neither leg-spinner, Stuart MacGill or Shane Warne, was in the Australian line-up.

In any Test series each team has an instinct for the "edge" match, the one that might swing the rubber. Playing England, the Australians used to get edgy about Headingley and Old Trafford where cricketing carnage had been inflicted upon them by Ian Botham and Jim Laker. Port of Spain, Trinidad, is a bad memory for some Australians who danced to Lance Gibbs' spin on something grey and dusty or, more recently, on a wet, grassy minefield, were bruised by Curtly Ambrose and other heavies.

Perth's WACA is such a ground, and not only for the visiting team. In 1993, Australia lost a series there when they made 119 and 178 and were crushed by the West Indies in three days on a green, bouncy pitch likened to the Wimbledon centre court on a murky day by a very unhappy Australian selection chairman. So, as any prosecutor worth his salt would say, "this WACA pitch has form".

Both teams would have considered this the "edge Test", the one where condition - and the luck of the toss - might offer up a winning chance. In a post-toss interview, the loser Alec Stewart announced he would have batted. Really? Even though the opener Michael Atherton is in the horrors and Graham Thorpe was out and contemplating life in a back brace?

England, by their selection philosophy, have conceded their fast men are the key to regaining the Ashes, yet Stewart wanted us to believe he would have passed up the chance to give them first use of the best fast bowling conditions in the country. At stumps, the ball was flying and seaming so much for England it was reasonable to wonder whether the groundsman had been over-friendly with the hose, fearing cracking if the weather got hot later in the game.

Truth is it was a bad toss for England to lose and this was nothing less than sheer bravado from Stewart to camouflage his disappointment and a too-obvious effort to relax the minds of his batsmen who were about to be head-hunted by Glenn McGrath.

The "carry" the fast men get on the WACA pitch is unique - Healy was climbing an invisible stepladder to take some balls - and it can bruise a batsman mentally as much as physically. When McGrath bloodied the chin of Mark Ramprakash and almost decapitated John Crawley first ball there would have been a twitching of top lips in the England dressing room. When England bowled and the fairly promising rookie Alex Tudor sunk a flying off-cutter into the ribs of Mark Taylor it was probably the moment when Jason Gillespie was nominated as nightwatchman for the golden Steve Waugh.

England batted badly. Butcher can plead deception-by-seam from Darren Fleming, as perfect a ball as you might see, but it was straightforward line and length bowling that settled the issue for Atherton, Hussain, Crawley and Hick, whose modern technology cricket shoes might as well have been divers' boots so leaden was their footwork. They were like rabbits in spotlights, caught on the crease every one, hanging the bat at the ball, arms stiff with tension, minds adrift.

All this was induced by McGrath's aggression and it was the carry he got and his cleverness that earned him the VIP wicket of Stewart, whom he confused. The England captain's tactic was a sensible one: give myself more time by getting on the back foot early. To achieve this Stewart took a good step back before McGrath actually delivered the ball. McGrath, a 38-Test veteran, countered with the unexpected - a fuller length. Stewart needed to go forward but because his weight was back he managed only a half-forward movement. He was, in fact, stranded on the crease, neither forward nor back, when the ball jagged back between bat and pad and crashed into the leg stump. On the scoreboard Fleming got five-for but McGrath deserved the high-fives.

The Australians are not in clover yet; day two on the WACA pitch can often be more exciting than day one, but Stewart would be nervous about bad news coming out of the slips, where catches again went down, and the waywardness of his bowlers compared with Taylor's.

Meanwhile, away from the WACA, Australia's reserve batsman Damien Lehmann hit 171 off 150 balls in a Sheffield Shield match; in the same match Shane Warne bowled 15 overs and took two wickets, but was belted for 80 runs. On a bad news day for England is that good news, or more bad news?

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