Cricket: Stewart in spin as England unravel

Third Test: Australia 391 & 278-5 dec England 227 & 122-4 Folly of picking one man as captain, wicketkeeper and key batsman ruthlessly exposed
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The Independent Online
TO MOST, it might seem like an elementary mistake, but England have been trying to beat Australia by breaking long-held mathematical theory. Alec Stewart is the guinea pig in question as England's selectors try to prove that three goes into one cleanly and without compromise.

On the evidence of this Ashes tour, it patently does not and Stewart's failure to bat at No 4, as England battled to save the third Test, was a tacit admission that his tripartite role as captain, wicketkeeper and top-order batsman, has become a burden too great.

Stewart, who eventually came in at No 6, albeit after the nightwatchman, Dean Headley, had been dismissed in the penultimate over of the fourth day's play, has not scored anything like his usual quota of Test runs this series.

It is a shortfall that has gone some way to ensuring that England's totals have been less than competitive. In turn, his "follow me lads" style of captaincy, which relies almost exclusively on leading by example, has also suffered.

It is difficult to captain when worries about your own form keep niggling away, and at times England's on-field cricket has lacked Test match intensity. Remember, it was Michael Atherton's lack of form, rather than England's performances, that persuaded him to resign the captaincy in the West Indies last March.

Predictably, England were playing the matter down and David Lloyd, the team coach, insisted that Stewart had simply dropped down the order to have a little bit longer to recover from keeping wicket.

"It's been a cumulative thing," said Lloyd. "The incredible heat on the first day has caught up with everyone and dropping down one gave Alec a bit more breathing space after the demands of keeping wicket."

On he face of it, this appears to be a reasonable explanation, though it also sounds like the thin end of the wedge, especially as Australia only batted until 20 minutes after lunch.

Cricket is a game played largely in the mind, though, and the Australians viewed his non-appearance quite differently. "We definitely saw it as a psychological point to us when Mark Ramprakash came in at four," said Michael Slater, who had earlier scored his 10th Test century. "It's good for us when we see a guy, who has been batting four all series, not coming out to bat."

For Stewart, the juggling of three roles has become something of a vicious circle. Never at his best starting against spin, Stewart is finding that by batting in the middle-order, he is facing spinners the moment he comes to the crease.

Australia do their homework well and he has fallen to spin three times in his last five innings, and that includes Perth where the slow bowlers barely got an outing. Indeed it was in the first innings there, where he scored a breezy 38, that Stewart last looked his old self.

Playing Australia is challenging enough without having three high profile jobs demanding an increasing amount of effort. Stewart best serves England when he opens the innings, which means that either 'keeping or the captaincy, perhaps both, must go.

Stewart has never showed great tactical astuteness as a captain and there have been times when watching England - as when Ramprakash bowled a long aimless spell on Sunday - has been like watching a county floundering in mid-table.

Of course Australia, even without Shane Warne, are a truly great side, and opponents generally find themselves under intense pressure, particularly as the end of the game approaches.

That was certainly been the case in Adelaide when Slater and Justin Langer resumed their partnership on the fourth morning. By his own admission Slater had been struggling the previous day. Apparently, the pitch, apart from taking spin, was also becoming more variable in bounce and scoring runs quickly has not been easy.

That said, Slater appeared to have no problems dispatching the first two balls of the day, from Darren Gough, to the boundary. Gough eventually got his revenge, pyrrhic though it was, with a corking inswinging yorker to the instep.

Slater clearly enjoys playing against England and this was his sixth century against them in just 14 Tests. Mind you Langer, with his second significant score of the match appears to as well, and he added 52 before holing out to Peter Such, as he tried to force the pace.

The proportion of boos that greeted Mark Waugh in the second innings, definitely dwindled since his appearance on the first day. Back to his silky best, they had disappeared altogether by the time he reached his 50. But if that was a relief, the knowledge that he and Warne have both received summonses to attend the match-fixing inquiry in Lahore, is sure to have taken the gloss off things.

Mark Taylor is a cagey old soul, and he delayed his declaration until 2.19pm, when Australia were 442 runs ahead, a total of no particular significance other than being 126 runs in excess of the highest-ever winning fourth innings score to have been made here.

Taylor does not like to declare during a break, as he feels opponents, particularly the opening batsmen, can prepare better. Instead he prefers to keep them on edge, uncertain when the moment to pad up will come. If it sounds like kidology, his record proves otherwise, and the openers, Atherton in particular, never looked comfortable, as England began their bid to survive the nine hours and 10 minutes of the match remaining.

With more the odd ball keeping low from the pacemen, it was Mark Butcher, edging a cut shot in the 13th over, who was first to go. According to the players, this pitch is the kind where if you get one wicket, you can easily pick up two or three.

As if to prove the point, Atherton followed in the next over, popping up a simple catch to Mark Waugh at silly point as Colin Miller suddenly got the ball to bounce. Normally a good technician with the softest of hands against spin, the steepness of the bounce clearly surprised Atherton, who jabbed if off the splice to Waugh.

At that juncture it should have been Stewart, though with Miller on, it was not imprudent that Ramprakash came out to join Nasser Hussain. The pair have so far been England's best batsmen and when they were together in the first innings, adding their hundred partnership, England at least looked as if they were competing.

The same was also true in the second innings, when, despite the pressure, they were able to nullify Stuart MacGill spinning the ball vast distances.

Perhaps because of the threat posed by MacGill - he is 10 times the bowler who sent down all those full tosses three weeks ago in the first innings at the Gabba - Hussain took his eye off Miller.

Altering his attack from the Northern End to around the wicket, Miller ran one past Hussain's outside edge before turning a quicker one into his pads. It did not spin much, just enough to ensure that Hussain, who has had a spate of poor decisions in recent months, could have no quibbles other than to wonder why he missed it.

With five minutes of play remaining, Stewart sent in Headley as nightwatchman. Off the mark with an edge for two off the fourth ball, Headley should really have stayed at the other end to protect Ramprakash from MacGill.

As it was, he came back to face Miller, who promptly had him caught by Mark Waugh at silly point off pad and glove. It was at that point, with England on 122 for 4, that Stewart came in, his role not so much defined by the selectors, as by the mountain in front of him.


Fourth day; Australia won toss

AUSTRALIA - First Innings 391 (J L Langer 179no, S R Waugh 59, M A Taylor 59; D W Headley 4-97).

ENGLAND - First Innings 227 (N Hussain 89no, M R Ramprakash 61; S C G MacGill 4-53)

AUSTRALIA - Second Innings

(Overnight: 150-1)

M J Slater lbw b Gough 103

276 min, 191 balls, 8 fours, 1 six

J L Langer c sub (B C Hollioake) b Such 52

227 min, 183 balls, 2 fours

M E Waugh not out 51

126 min, 84 balls, 5 fours

S R Waugh c Hick b Headley 7

21 min, 22 balls

R T Ponting b Gough 10

42 min, 29 balls, 1 four

I A Healy not out 7

20 min, 13 balls

Extras (lb12,w1,nb6) 19

Total (for 5 dec, 403 min, 98 overs) 278

Fall: 1-54 (Taylor), 2-188 (Slater), 3-216 (Langer), 4-230 (S Waugh), 5-268 (Ponting).

Bowling: Gough 22-2-76-2 (6-2-14-0 4-0-14-0 7-0-29-1 5-0-19-1), Mullally 16-6-18-0 (7-3-7-0 4-1-5-0 5-2-6-0), Headley 18-1-78-1 (nb5) (8-1-33-0 3-0-9-0 7-0-36-1), Such 29-5-66-2 (w1) (8-1-14-1 6-2-7-0 2-0-11-0 13-2- 34-1), Ramprakash 12-1-27-0 (1-1-0-0 10 -0-25-0 1-0-2-0), Hick 1-0-1-0.

Progress: Third day: 50: 77 min, 18.3 overs. Tea: 75-1 (Slater 30, Langer 7) 30 overs. Restart delayed after tea until 4.12pm. 100: 166 mins, 43.1 overs. 150: 242 min, 59.4 overs. Close 150-1 (Slater 74, Langer 34) 60 overs. Fourth day: 200: 293 min, 72.4 overs. 250: 357 min, 86.2 overs. Lunch 253-4 (M Waugh 35, Ponting 8) 88 overs. Declaration at 2.19pm. Slater 50: 179 min, 124 balls, 3 fours, 1 six. 100: 272 min, 184 balls, 8 fours, 1 six. Langer 50: 224 min, 181 balls, 2 fours. M Waugh 50: 115 min, 75 balls, 5 fours.

ENGLAND - Second Innings

M A Butcher c Healy b Fleming 19

50 min, 39 balls

M A Atherton c M Waugh b Miller 5

57 min, 43 balls

N Hussain lbw b Miller 41

132 min, 97 balls, 4 fours

M R Ramprakash not out 43

134 mis, 128 balls, 2 fours

D W Headley c M Waugh b Miller 2

3 min, 4 balls

*A J Stewart not out 0

4 min, 0 balls

Extras (b3,lb4,nb5) 12

Total (for 4, 192 min, 51 overs) 122

Fall: 1-27 (Butcher), 2-31 (Atherton), 3-120 (Hussain), 4-122 (Headley).

Bowling: McGrath 10-0-22-0 (nb4) (6-0-12-0 4-0-10-0), Fleming 14-2-40- 1 (nb1) (5-0-13-0 3-0-12-1 6-2-15-0), Miller 13-1-36-3 (8-1-21-1 5-0-15- 2), MacGill 12-4-14-0 (4-0-8-0 7-3-6-0 1-1-0-0), S Waugh 2-1-3-0 (one spell).

Progress: Fourth day: Tea: 47-2 (Hussain 11, Ramprakash 7) 18 overs. 50: 75 min, 18.5 overs. 100: 161 min, 43.2 overs.

Umpires: S A Bucknor and S J Davis.

TV Replay umpire: P M Angley.

Match referee: J R Reid.

Compiled by Jo King