NEVER mind the joys of fresh- faced blond-topped spinners, Test cricket at its heart is a hard, relentless game and the balance was redressed yesterday by David Boon, a hard man being very relentless, as England were ground into Old Trafford's dusty wicket.
With two days to go in the first Test and no obvious sign of a return of the rain that has made this such an absorbing battle, England are 310 runs behind with seven Australian second-innings wickets still to claim.
Of the 13 to have fallen, Peter Such has taken eight but, while he remains the pick of England's bowlers, he discovered that inspiration and innocence is no match for perspiration and experience.
Boon not only has plenty of those qualities, but he is also a high-quality batsman, and on a wicket returning to normality, he was too good for a hard-working but limited England.
The stocky Tasmanian is the sort of bloke portrayed in the poetry of Henry Lawson, the Australian whose writings captured the hardships endured in the conquest of the outback at the turn of the century. A man of few words who places a premium on loyalty, courage and that Australian ethos of 'mateship', Boon would have been a gritty homesteader eking a living from the barren earth, or a battling drover dragging his mules across the scorched countryside.
Today such a figure is more likely to be found in a lager commercial, but Boon's cricketing ability has earned him a wider stage. Yesterday he hauled his team virtually out of sight of England, whose batsmen must now prove Keith Fletcher's assertion that they are the country's best.
Boon is the premier batsman on either side as much for his awareness of what not to do as for what he does. Having decided that his duty lay in ensuring Australia gained every run available, no matter how long it took, he dug in, eschewing risks, nudging singles and occasionally flexing his arms to crack the ball square for four.
At the close, signalled by a plaintive rendition of 'The Last Post' from within the crowd, he had batted 12 minutes short of five hours with 11 boundaries. With Boon was another of the same mould, Allan Border, who had struck one boundary in two hours at the crease. It was not pretty, but it was effective.
The best entertainment had come at the start of the day. Inevitably it came from Such. Surprisingly it was with the bat. The most attractive batting was from another man used to spectacular debuts, Mark Waugh, who secured his place at the Lord's Test in a fortnight with an increasingly classy 64.
England had resumed yesterday still 87 runs short of Australia at 202 for eight. With the tail more suited to a warren than a dressing- room, they were not expected to reach high noon, and after 26 minutes and eight additional runs such fears were fulfilled.
Andy Caddick, after a single off Merv Hughes, attempted to sweep Shane Warne against the spin, and when the top-edge came to earth was caught by the wicketkeeper, Ian Healy, in the short-leg spot. Phil Tufnell followed soon after, caught behind off the splice after a poor attempt to evade a Hughes bouncer.
Hughes finished with 4 for 59, a tribute to his heart and ingenuity on an unhelpful pitch, Warne 4 for 51. Here last year Mushtaq Ahmed, Ian Salisbury and Graeme Hick had failed to take a wicket; this time 15 of the first 23 have fallen to spin. Perhaps all pitches should be flooded before a Test match.
Such remained undefeated with 14, a fair effort for a player whose career average has only soared from marginally above one to just below five since his move to Essex. His first scoring stroke underlined the value of the Sunday League in developing Test batsmen, Such carving Hughes through cover from a position within whispering distance of Dickie Bird at square leg. Hughes' ears, already steaming like a hot iron, moved into locomotive mode as Such attempted to hook the consequent bouncer from a yard outside off.
The third ball would have been four legside wides if Such had not backed into it, the fourth and sixth he somehow kept out. The fifth was Hughes' leg-spinner, an intelligent move but being the only leggie not to turn in the innings, an unsuccessful one.
Tufnell's exit ended the fun but it was enough to confirm Such's place as the darling of the crowd which, though large and noisy, was disappointingly short of capacity. When, less than an hour later, Such came on to bowl the ninth over of the innings they reacted as if Eric Cantona had been handed the ball. Five balls later Old Trafford roared again as Mark Taylor attempted to sweep and was leg before on his back leg. Half-an-hour on and bedside radios were being switched off all over Wagga Wagga as Michael Slater's dismissal ended the New South Wales town's interest.
Slater can look back on a very promising debut but his was an unnecessary departure and one that revealed his youth. Having escaped with a chancy drive over mid-on for four off the first ball of Such's fifth over, he cut for two and then tried to repeat the first shot. The result was a gentle chip into the hands of Caddick who had moved wider for that shot. The wicket left Australia 46 for 2 and Such 2 for 10 off 27 balls.
England dared to hope, but Waugh, who made a match-saving 138 not out in his first Test appearance, against England two years ago, overcame early nerves to blossom. While Boon passed Ian Chappell and Doug Walters to go fifth on Australia's all-time run- list, Waugh whipped Lewis off his legs for four and pulled him for six. The following ball he cut hard to Robin Smith's right and it just failed to stick.
It looked an expensive miss but 10 runs later Tufnell, who like Phillip DeFreitas looked as if he had learned nothing from the travails of India and Sri Lanka, bowled him off his pads as Waugh aimed to drive the ball through midwicket.
Border was harder to dislodge. Gooch rang the changes but to no avail, the ball rarely beating the bat. After two curious days the Ashes series is panning out as has been expected all along, England toiling, Australia cruising.
The growing deficit means there will be a heavy responsibility on England's batsmen when they take the crease. In the first innings the selectors' faith in the men who let them down so badly in the winter went unrewarded. This top seven all batted when England lost by more than an innings in Bombay, and only Gooch, for his innings here, and Graeme Hick and Robin Smith, for their tour performances, have so far earned a place in the second Test at Lord's in a fortnight's time.
With Mark Lathwell yesterday following the examples of David Gower and the less celebrated Alan Fordham, there is no defence for a continued refusal to revamp the batting.
For all Keith Fletcher's promises of rolling heads after Sri Lanka there are only two new faces. If the refreshing success of one of them demonstrates anything it is that England are as likely to be invigorated as weakened by new players.
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