Cricket: Pressure on spine of England

THE SPATE of bad backs that continue to frustrate England's tour is showing no sign of abating. If losing a Test match in two and a half days was not damaging enough to morale, the injury to Graham Thorpe's lumbar region, the latest in an alarming list of players who cannot guarantee their fitness for more than a day at a time, has rounded off a miserable week in Perth. Any more setbacks and the Samaritans' hotline could well be busy.

As the rest of the England squad enjoyed two days off, a break many used to take in the beach or a round of golf, Thorpe had treatment.

In fact, following some acupuncture on Saturday, he is much improved, and providing he comes through two workouts, as well as the flight to Melbourne, he will play against Victoria at the weekend. If not, the England management would have little option than to send him home.

It was not long ago that bad backs in cricket were thought to be exclusive to bowlers. Running, twisting, turning and generally pounding their way through the day, they were the one's that felt the surgeon's knife.

Now, with front-on bowling actions helping to minimise stress fractures, it is the batsmen, perhaps as a result of batting with the extra weight of a helmet, that are keeping osteo-paths honest. It is a precarious situation despite the 18-man squad, and if all the batsmen afflicted so far on this tour, Thorpe, Alec Stewart, Michael Atherton, Mark Butcher and Nasser Hussain, happened to wake up crocked together, England would be hard pushed to put out a side.

Uncertainty, particularly over injuries, is never a healthy way to visit Australia, one of the more demanding tours in terms of travel and intensity. These days there are fewer opportunities to recover fully and you have to be fit and robust enough to tour, as well as bat.

Thorpe's current problem has apparently nothing to do with the one he had last summer, when a cyst was removed from his lower back. According to the England physio, Wayne Morton, the exertions of the first Test, plus the seven-hour flight to Perth, simply aggravated a back still finding its way back to full fitness.

One man's misfortune is another's opportunity, however, and Graeme Hick's upgrade to full party membership, after flying over as cover for Michael Atherton in Brisbane, is yet another chance for him to resurrect a flagging career.

With Thorpe not fit for the Waca, Hick notched up his 50th Test. It was mixed affair, not unlike the man himself, and a first-innings duck was followed by a savage 68, the highest score in the match.

Providing England continue using seven batsmen, and Thorpe recovers in time for the next Test, Hick will have overtaken John Crawley in the reckoning for a berth in Adelaide. Considering that Crawley was picked in place of him after both scored hundreds against Sri Lanka, it is a cruel irony and one that will do nothing for the Lancastrian's confidence.

"Graeme played positively and took the attack to the Australians," said the England team manager, Graham Gooch. "It was the right thing to do in the circumstances. Mind you, we had essentially lost the match on the first innings. If we had scored 250 first up, it would have been a good game."

Hick is not alone here as most of England's batsmen have tended to save their best for when England have been virtually out of the match. It is a habit, which apart from being futile, must be broken if Australia's dominance is to be challenged.

To have a realistic chance of levelling the series, England need to get first-innings runs and take their catches. All other means are superfluous.