Cricket: MacGill stalking Warne

The Ashes: Australia's future takes a sharp turn for the better while the tourists try to draw fresh heart
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IN ANY final judgment on this Third Test, the 88th run of England's first innings will not rate a mention, for as runs go it was a benign affair, a bye. But there's a good chance it was a defining moment in the bigger picture of Australian cricket.

Stuart MacGill was bowling, and a good-length ball snaked and leapt past the prodding bat of Mark Ramprakash. Ian Healy, arguably the world's most accomplished gloveman, was unable to handle it. He jerked his gloves sideways and upwards, but too late and the ball ricocheted to vacant short third man. For a moment Shane Warne's spinning finger, rather than his greased palm, came to mind. It was a moment that suggested to concerned Australians that if Warne fails to make it back then MacGill, if he discovers maturity, can establish himself as the world's No 1 leg-spinner.

Such an assessment could impact on the daunting question confronting England: how to win this Adelaide Test? Alec Stewart conceded pre-game that for a team hoping to reclaim the Ashes there is hardly a poorer prospect than to be one down with two to play. In other words, Adelaide is pretty much must-win.

In a perfect world England's route to victory is, of course, simple: score 500 runs, and do so at a decent rate. With three days to play the deficit is 231; on a best estimate England can match Australia's total by late on day three, then build a lead - any lead. Perhaps Stewart can only dream of an Australian second innings starting about tea on day four.

This Adelaide pitch, roasted peanut-brown by first-day temperatures usually experienced in Australia's Great Sandy Desert, is offering hints that its final day character will be obnoxious to batsmen, especially leg-spin- shy batsmen, of which England have a few. None might be more vulnerable than the skipper himself, whose stiff-legged prod did him in against the novice off-spin of Colin Miller and reinforced claims that the roles of tactician and high-order batsman are beyond him at this level. Otherwise the vital-life signs for England's batting have been good; a perkier Michael Atherton and Nasser Hussain added 50 in 40 balls after tea, including 14 from one Damien Fleming over. This was a partnership that looked threatening until Taylor's scooping catch of Atherton brought the third umpire into play.

Atherton shook his head at the dreaded red light while Australia celebrated, but those of us who believe a batsman should get the benefit of any reasonable doubt wished the decision had been different. That's not to say it wasn't a fair catch or that Taylor's a cheat, merely that sometimes even the latest technology cannot eliminate doubt. The time might be right for the pathetically inadequate International Cricket Council to fall off the fence they find so comfortable and remind third umpires that batsmen still deserve some sympathy.

Australia had the worst of preparations for this Test yet they remain in a fair position for two reasons. Justin Langer's stoic hand is the obvious one, and yet again there was England's butterfingered fielding. Ramprakash put down two sitters that didn't change the course of the game, but certainly they did nothing to lift any bowler's confidence.

Langer cannot perpetuate the traditional, adventurous style of Australian No 3s; he is no Neil Harvey, no Norman O'Neill nor an Ian Chappell. There is no grace about his strokeplay, he is a slapper, an axeman when he chops and squeezes the short ones through point, and he gets badly cramped when the ball nips back at him, into the pads. But he is tough.

For Langer, Adelaide today is a happier place than it has been. In the 1992-93 Australian season he made his Test debut there against the West Indies and when his team was hurting he showed great character to score quality runs after Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh, vicious as ever, had bruised him with a blow to the helmet.

He missed the 1993 Ashes and until this innings had been under pressure to hold his spot; now it's Ricky Ponting. Expect Darren Lehmann, a better player of spin, to play at Melbourne and Sydney.

No report on this Test would be complete without reference to the bookie scandal. Happily the Australian Cricket Board have now put crass incompetence aside in favour of commonsense, and called an inquiry. Mark Waugh and Warne, who prolonged their naivety by ducking the tough questions after reading out their embarrassing confessionals, will now face a proper grilling. We deserve a word-by-word account of the negotiations. How was the fee negotiated, in rupees or dollars. Cash? Surely not a bank cheque? Which other players knew about this at the time and, most importantly, what was their reaction?

So much for the players. The main players, those in the ACB and the ICC who sought to hush this scandal up, simply should be hanged.