Cricket: Stewart's injury leaves England exposed

SECOND TEST: Tourists let Australia off the hook with an excessively ca utious approach to dealing with the wiles of Warne
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Australia 279

England 148-4

So many England players have been through X-ray machines on this tour that it soon will not be safe to enter the dressing-room without an asbestos suit, and with Alec Stewart breaking the same right index finger that Craig White snapped during practice in the opening week, England are now down to six fit batsmen. Such was the delicate balance of this match by the second-day close that Stewart was preparing to bat one-handed if necessary, and as he is also the side's reserve wicketkeeper, there was even talk of replacing him with two players. England finally settled on flying out Jack Russell as cover.

It is perhaps a touch unfair to kick a side when they are down, but if there is such a proverb, Chinese or otherwise, as "you make your own bad luck in this life" then it would not have been inappropriate had it dropped from one of England's party crackers on Christmas Day.

The logic behind persisting with Stewart as Michael Atherton's opening partner, and leaving their best batsman, Graham Gooch, to wait until three men are back inside the pavilion before he gets to the crease, is frankly a nonsense.

Remarkably, the recently arrived England chairman, Raymond Illingworth, says that he has no firm opinion on this issue, remarkable in that Illingworth having no firm opinion on something - even the price of a cup of MCG tea - is only marginally less startling than seeing a Martian spaceship land on the square. Unless, of course, it landed during the lunch break, in which case we would realise that it was another gimmic from the Australian Cricket Board, demanding something a bit more unusual than parachutists and dogs catching frisbees.

However, while Stewart's fractured finger was certainly unlucky, where England deserve slightly less sympathy than they awarded themselves is over the raised umpiring digits, which turned what was beginning to look like another encouraging day into the more familiar nervous twitch against their old nemesis, Shane Warne.

Warne is not the sort of bowler to take many liberties with, but neither is it particularly wise to treat every delivery from him as a hand grenade. Atherton's vague prod had him clearly lbw despite being on the front foot, and while Graham Thorpe was also miffed at being given out caught at silly point, unless Warne is given less reverential respect, England are never going to be rid of claustrophobic field placings.

The crucial decision, though, was made by the Tasmanian umpire, Steve Randell, at a time when Graeme Hick was looking in hearteningly good form. Having delivered the ball (the first after lunch) that sent Stewart to hospital, Craig McDermott clearly fancied his chances of putting a bit more work the radiologist's way, but Hick took him on with such elan that McDermott was about to be taken off when Randell upheld a caught-behind appeal that appeared to come off the thigh pad.

However, lest anyone become too aggrieved at what may have been a bogus dismissal, this Australian side is a long way from being the appeal-for-anything outfit they latterly became under Allan Border. In the wider context of Test cricket, comfortably themost uplifting moment yesterday was the sight of the current Australian captain, Mark Taylor, immediately signalling an unfair appeal against Atherton as Warne claimed a low catch alongside him in the slips off Fleming. It should also be said that the player who consistently lodges the most ludicrous appeals on either side is the England wicketkeeper, Stephen Rhodes.

However, it is at least indicative of Rhodes' aggressive nature, which England badly need to be at least as contagious as chicken pox when it comes to batting against Warne. Wonderful bowler though Warne is, the fact that his combined analysis in this Test series last night read 91.4-37-144-14 accurately reflects England's pitiful timidity against him.

Yesterday, he took three for 8 in a spell of 40 deliveries, and apart from Gooch hoiking a full toss, he did not concede another boundary in 120 balls. In fact, it is difficult to recall anyone getting out of the crease to drive him in those 20 overs.

Mike Gatting, whose old savagery against spinners is becoming a distant memory, was fourth out when he top-edged a sweep off Warne to short fine leg, and England's encouraging position (despite losing Stewart) evaporated from 119 for 1 to 140 for, at best, four and a half.

It was all the more galling in that, Warne apart, Australia do not pose much of a threat once McDermott has been seen off. Damien Fleming did not look much more threatening than he did when he spent the entire Brisbane Test lobbing up lunchtime deliveries to people trying to win a prize by hitting them at giant inflatables, although he did inflict considerable damage with the bat.

This is not a good pitch, getting more uneven by the session, and Steve Waugh, who finished with 94 not out, said yesterday that a fourth-innings target for England of anything around 200 would not be too much fun. This being the case, England could ill afford to allow Australia the luxury of 37 runs from their last wicket.

Keith Fletcher pronounced himself satisfied with England's bowlers yesterday morning in taking Australia's final three wickets for 59 runs, in which case the team manager is not difficult to please. When Devon Malcolm finished off the innings by having Fleming caught it was with only his second straight delivery in seven and a half overs.

The first one was a nasty bouncer which crunched into Waugh's helmet grille, but Waugh stuck it out with an innings which included a spell of no boundaries for 50 overs. Darren Gough was England's best bowler, which presumably means that we can expect him to pull a fetlock at any moment.

Seamers in charge, page 19