Cricket: Pitch provides Atherton with his first test: Fears over Stewart's fitness prompts call for Russell to follow Emburey in even later dash to Edgbaston as stand-by wicketkeeper

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THE new leader's boyish smile is still in place, although it is already beginning to look more like the sort of sheepish grin employed by someone who has been searching for his spectacles for half an hour, before looking in the mirror and finding them perched on top of his head.

It did not take long for Michael Atherton to discover that the England cricket team's permanent limp is the result of self- inflicted gunshot wounds to both feet. Anyone can make a mistake, but it takes some doing to turn up for a home Test match, and then start wondering whether you are in Birmingham or Bombay.

John Emburey's Tuesday evening dash from London to Birmingham provided a fairly substantial clue that despite the intricate web of spies, observers and dossiers set up when Ted Dexter launched his new-look England committee four years ago, as intelligence networks go, MI5 it is not.

The pitch that was responsible for Emburey's call-up (having returned home after an afternoon's shopping, and a game of rounders with his daughters, he had just popped a roast into the oven when the phone rang) is scalped, cracked and dry - a minor consideration that apparently took England by surprise when they originally named Peter Such as the only spinner in their squad.

An altogether hapless sequence of events apparently began in the belief that the pitch would be well grassed, but when Dennis Amiss, an England selector and a Warwickshire committee member, popped in to take a look on Saturday, he could not have filled an eggcup with the clippings had he used a pair of nail scissors.

Amiss duly reported his findings to the England selectors, who for some reason decided to stick to the original plan, until Atherton and Keith Fletcher saw the evidence at first hand on Tuesday. A source close to the Warwickshire committee (not Amiss) says that the groundsman, Andy Atkinson, was told six weeks ago to keep the grass on, although this was apparently news to him.

'I had heard all this talk about England wanting green pitches,' Atkinson said, 'but nothing was said to me personally. As far as I'm concerned I'm just carrying out TCCB regulations - a hard, dry pitch, which will last for five days. The last time I prepared a four-day pitch (against the West Indies in 1991) they weren't slow to let me know that it had cost them pounds 150,000 in lost revenue.'

Heaven only knows the total in TCCB salaries that has gone into this brilliant piece of communication and forward planning, but hang on a minute, there's more. Alec Stewart damaged a rib playing for Surrey a week ago, but only yesterday did this alert the England camp to the danger that he might not be able to play, and for the second day running an extra player was asked to dash off to Edgbaston.

Jack Russell, who played the last of his 31 Test matches in New Zealand 18 months ago, has been called in as cover for Stewart, although the latter is still optimistic about passing himself fit this morning. If he is not, England will effectively lose a batsman, as they are committed to playing four bowlers. Two of these will definitely be Emburey and Peter Such, which is the one encouraging sign we have had since the weekend. It was not that long ago when England peered at a grassless dust bowl in Calcutta, promptly omitted all three spinners at their disposal, and oblivion duly followed at the hands of India's trio of twirly men. Following England is a recipe for laughter and tears, more often than not at the same time.

Australia, on the other hand, may be unable to play two specialist spinners of their own if Tim May fails to recover in time from a hamstring injury, in which case the tourists are likely to pick Damien Martyn and go down the same seven batsman route as England, with Shane Warne being complemented by Allan Border's occasional left- arm spin. Premature rejoicing is not advised, as on one of these occasional occasions, Border took 11 wickets in a Test match.

Given that only two pace bowlers will be required to operate in something other than short bursts, Devon Malcolm will be consulting his road map for Derbyshire's match in Durham today, and Martin Bicknell is likely to be preferred to Mark Ilott on the grounds that he swings the ball more.

After all this, Atherton's first pre-Test press conference was not quite the calm introduction he might have had in mind, but apart from the 'How come you didn't know about the pitch?' question, which was basically an unplayable delivery, he genially played everything off the middle of the bat.

'The pitch is not what we expected,' he said, 'but we should be able to play in all conditions. Emburey was called up because he was felt to be the best available, and we should be able to ask Goochie to get through 10 overs if we need him to.'

Gooch, who requires only 129 runs to dethrone David Gower as England's highest Test run- scorer, will also open the innings, which Atherton apparently insisted on. 'I felt it was in the team's best interests,' he said.

The toss will be important today, but Atherton is determined not to be negative if he loses it. 'We'd like to bat first, but if not, we have got to make things happen. Test cricket is all about putting the opposition under pressure, and how you yourselves react when the pressure is reversed.'

He sounds, and looks, as though he is enjoying it, but Atherton knows only too well that when it comes to the England captaincy, the honeymoon is over almost before the church organ has stopped playing.

TEAMS FOR THE FIFTH CORNHILL TEST (Edgbaston, starting today): England: (from) G A Gooch, M A Atherton (capt), R A Smith, M P Maynard, G P Thorpe, N Hussain, A J Stewart or R C Russell (wkt), J E Emburey, M P Bicknell, S L Watkin, P M Such, D E Malcolm, M C Ilott.

Australia: (probable) M A Taylor, M J Slater, D C Boon, M E Waugh, A R Border (capt), S R Waugh, I A Healy (wkt), M G Hughes, P R Reiffel, S K Warne, T B A May.

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