Cricket: Surrey pair must help England to raise profile

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The Independent Online
ACCLIMATISATION has never been an easy process for England cricket sides visiting Australia. In the space of three weeks, Alec Stewart's side have been shunted to three of Australia's many distant corners. Results - one win, two draws - have likewise been as subdued as you would expect from a side who have covered more miles and experienced more climate zones than migrating geese.

To begin with, it was the dry heat and trampolining bounce of Perth that preceded the two-sweater sluggishness of Adelaide, famous for the record stand of 377 between Graham Thorpe and Mark Ramprakash.

Now, the pre-Test preparations have reached Cairns and it is the tropical heat and humidity of crocodile country, along with an equally hungry Queensland team - the strongest of the sides yet faced - that must be negotiated. With a week to go before the first Test in Brisbane, this is the final dress rehearsal at which few fluffed lines can be tolerated.

Of prime concern to the tourists is the almost non- existent batting form of the captain and his brother-in-law, Mark Butcher, two of the most important players. As linchpin and opener respectively, the duo are vital to England's campaign, particularly in posting big first- innings scores, that, as yet, continue to elude.

If they can, Butcher, who was struck by a blow above the eye, and Stewart, who recorded a pair in Adelaide, will want to book in at the crease not only for bed and breakfast but for lunch and tea as well, such is the need to get quality time at the crease. With the reserve wicketkeeper, Warren Hegg, returning home to visit his wife, who is expecting a baby, Stewart will have had to scotch any thoughts of simply concentrating on his batting.

It will be far from easy and ranged against them and the other England batsmen will be three fine pace bowlers. Adam Dale, Mike Kasprowicz and Andy Bichel have all represented Australia and at least one of them is likely to start the rubber at the Gabba next week.

The uncertainty over the Surrey duo has led England towards seriously considering seven batsmen in Brisbane. If that were the case, John Crawley, certain to play against Queensland tomorrow, would probably be the one to bat at seven. Either Graham Thorpe or Nasser Hussain will be rested, though much will depend on whether Ben Hollioake has sufficiently overcome his groin strain enough to play.

As a tactic, playing seven batsmen sends out all the wrong signals. Unless the pitch is green it consigns England to playing four seam bowlers, a lack of variety for which they have been punished before, and by far less talented batting sides than Australia. Not losing may be important against a side like Australia, but not at the cost of reducing your chances of winning. Before England commit themselves to that route, let us see how the bowlers contend with a Queensland line-up chock-full of talent. Apart from the opener, Matthew Hayden, desperate to regain the Test place he lost as Mark Taylor's partner, others keen to remind the Australian selectors of their presence are Stuart Law and Andrew Symonds.

Motivation will not be wanting as Law seeks to make amends for a moderate summer with Essex and the loss of the Queensland captaincy to the ubiquitous Ian Healy.

English-born but raised in Australia, Symonds, too, will be looking to impress, particularly after the fiasco during his time with Gloucestershire when he pledged his allegiance to England before retracting it.

A recently relaid square, the pitch at Cairns is an unknown quantity and looks like remaining that way should the rain clouds currently hugging the appropriately named Atherton Tableland, continue to drop their watery load.

As the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef, Cairns the place, on the other hand, is a busy little town full of Japanese tourists wielding umbrellas. The yen may have recently been hard hit compared with other currencies round the world, but against the Aussie dollar it is positively buoyant.

And yet such is the one-eyed nature of this country that the sterling rate - which is about as strong as it has ever been - was not even listed in The Australian, one of the major newspapers. If England's cricketers can similarly raise their profile, and the next four days against Queensland is as good a place as any to start, this Ashes series may yet be a close one.

ENGLAND (from): M A Butcher, MA Atherton, N Hussain, A J Stewart (capt & wkt), G P Thorpe, M R Ramprakash, J P Crawley, B C Hollioake, D G Cork, D Gough, A D Mullally, R D B Croft, A R C Fraser, D W Headley.

QUEENSLAND (from): I A Healy (capt & wkt), M L Hayden, J P Maher, M L Love, S G Law, A Symonds, G I Foley, A J Bichel, A C Dale, P W Jackson, M S Kasprowicz, J M Dawes.