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Cricket: Test of character for edgy Australia

The cordial nature of this Ashes series is beginning to sour. Australia, virtually cooped up by bad weather since the frustrations of Lord's, have objected to the size of their dressing-room, which their manager, Alan Crompton, claims is too small to house their squad. Lancashire have compromised by allowing the tourists to use one of England's changing rooms upstairs, forcing Michael Atherton's men to retreat into the already cluttered Lancashire first-team dressing-room next door.

The episode, although unlikely to break any records on the Richter scale of rows, suggests an edginess rarely displayed by the visitors since Mark Taylor assumed the captaincy.

Although it may be no more than a by-product of their rain-dogged fixture list, that this Old Trafford Test represents the half-way mark of the series, the Australians may feel - with England carefully nursing a one- match lead - that the Ashes are slowly slipping away.

However, if the extra dressing-room space was a concession from Lancashire, the visitors can expect few other favours from a club hoping to serve its familial ties with England's captain and coach.

The pitch, despite having spent most of its time under covers, has certainly been prepared to order. Over the years, Peter Marron, the groundsman here, has received both praise and vilification for his pitches. Shrewd judges will tell you that like Ron Allsopp, the now retired groundsman at Trent Bridge, Marron can prepare what he wants and that without the recent rain, this pitch would have been the slow seamer England desired.

At the moment, its well grassed surface is mottled by patches of damp and a drying crust, a combination whose uncertainty has delayed the selection of England's XI until this morning. With Phil Tufnell sent back to join his county on Wednesday, the final place will almost certainly go to either Devon Malcolm or Dean Headley who, despite fitness worries over the last week, are both raring to go.

Should Malcolm prevail, it would be the first time since the 1985/86 tour of India, captained by David Gower, that England have fielded an unchanged side in three consecutive Tests. However, all omens, not least the need for accuracy on this green pitch, point to the inclusion of Headley, whose darting nip-backers are hoped will exploit the achilles' heel of the Waughs, as well as those of Australia's left-handers.

If it does, Headley will follow father Ron and grandfather George, both of whom played for the West Indies, into Test cricket. It will be the first time three generations of a family have played at Test level, a remarkable and unique achievement, albeit one shared between two different countries.

In contrast there was no such prevarication from the Australian camp who, feeling that they are at last beginning to play combative cricket, even named their 11 before yesterday's net session. Jason Gillespie, following his brilliant bowling at Hampshire where he took eight wickets, comes in for the unlucky Michael Kasprowicz in a side otherwise unchanged from that which played at Lord's.

If the weather holds, several of the Australian players could reach milestones over the next five days. Ian Healy needs two catches to join Rod Marsh and Alan Knott in reaching a hundred Ashes victims while Mark Taylor, further restored after his second century of the summer, needs 64 runs to reach the six thousand mark in Tests.

Of course, should Shane Warne, who brought the cricket world to attention here four years ago with the "wonder ball" that bowled Mike Gatting, enjoy an exceptional match with both bat and ball, he could well pass a thousand runs as well as the 250-wicket mark.

But while the forecast, which predicts showers clearing up at the weekend, will inevitably tempt both captains to insert their opponents, history - no one has ever won a Test here by putting the opposition in - may cause them to think twice.

In any case Atherton, who knows this ground well, thinks that the pitch will be "fine" when play starts later this morning, though he thought it might "quicken up" during the game. "It does traditionally help spin," he said, "but usually when conditions have been drier."

The good news for cricket followers, however, is that both sides are aiming to win this pivotal Test. "As I've said before we aren't here to sit on a one-nil lead. If we get five days of decent weather there should be a result, particularly as Australia don't tend to draw many games."

England (from): M A Atherton (capt), M A Butcher, A J Stewart, N Hussain, G P Thorpe, J P Crawley, M A Ealham, R D B Croft, D Gough, A R Caddick, D W Headley, A M Smith, D E Malcolm.

Australia: M A Taylor (capt), M T G Elliott, G S Blewett, M E Waugh, S R Waugh, M G Bevan, I A Healy, S K Warne, J N Gillespie, P R Reiffel, G D McGrath.