Cricket: The curse of Brisbane strikes again

The Ashes: Atherton falls victim to the McGrath menace as England pay in full for spurned half-chances
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ENGLAND are falling victim to the curse of Brisbane again. Beating Australia here is not just hard, it is almost unheard of, and it surely will not happen this year. Not after Australia's first innings of 485.

Although the wicket is more benign than has been the case at Brisbane Cricket Ground in Wooloongabba - the Gabba for short - England have already lost a promising position to a relentless Australian counter- attack led by Steve Waugh and Ian Healy, both of whom scored splendid hundreds.

But there has been no surrender so far. Healy refers simply to events on the cricket field as "the battle" and, like other Australian players, he acknowledges that Alec Stewart's team have fought harder than their predecessors.

There have been serious self-inflicted wounds, however. While Waugh and Healy put on 187 for the sixth wicket - in effect putting victory beyond England's reach before lunch on the second day - three reasonable chances had been squandered. David Lloyd, England's coach, had no illusions about the consequences: "The opportunities were there. Half-chances are crucial, and we didn't take them."

Failure to do so freed the Australian tail to take maximum advantage of an excellent batting wicket. While the top five wickets managed only a meagre 178 runs, the last five produced 306 runs. At the end of the second day's play, Steve Waugh declared that there was enough movement left in the wicket to enable Australia to set up the game. But all was not lost.

A number of Australian players are saying here that this England are harder to beat. "You can feel they're tougher, bowling to a plan, keeping it tight, and waiting for us to make mistakes," says Steve Waugh. And after Mike Atherton's hapless duck, both Mark Butcher and Nasser Hussain treated the wicket on its merits and scored freely to reach 53 for 1 at the close of the second day - 432 behind, with another 233 required to avoid the follow-on.

The curse of Brisbane is seven defeats and four draws in 13 Tests since the Second World War. The normal conditions are semi-tropical - alien, full of heat and humidity. But if the curse has not been lifted this time round, England cannot blame the conditions, which are like... England. There has even been a stoppage for bad light.

The Gabba is a construction site. Its charm has been sacrificed to a complete redevelopment so that it can house the Olympic 2000 football tournament. Jacarandas, poinsettias and palm trees in the surrounding streets tell you about the normal weather, but for two days the clouds have been high, the breeze clement, and the heat quite bearable. The fault is not in the stars that England have failed to bury the curse.

When play began on Saturday morning, Australia were vulnerable. A couple of quick wickets and they could have been all-out for 325 or so. But Waugh and Healy scored 24 runs off the first four overs and the pressure was lifted, although both of them edged Darren Gough through the slips with frustrating regularity. When there were two slips, the ball flew through third slip's position. When Gough insisted on a third slip, the edge went where fourth slip would be.

For most of Friday's play Stewart had set attacking fields; now he set boldness aside, and he was being punished for his defensive field placing by the complete evaporation of England's luck. Gough understood; when Waugh played and missed for the third time, he stood and laughed at his fate.

Waugh's hundred was his sixth against England, Healy's his second, and Healy's was the better of the two, his century coming in 160 balls compared to Waugh's 201. These big centuries at the Gabba, which is where he plays for Queensland, are becoming habitual. (Recall his 161 against the West Indies a couple of years ago in similar circumstances.)

Healy is from the rural north of the state, from Irish stock, as you can tell by looking at him: the wide-set eyes, thin lips, stocky torso and short legs - he could be a character in The Playboy of the Western World.

His mother, who is the daughter of a State senator, is the principal influence on him apparently. "She'd tell him not to hook before he'd got his first fifty," says the reporter who helped Healy write his book. He studied sports psychology at university and his conversation is littered with jargon about concentration, motivation and cricket being "a mental game". But you don't pay to listen to him.

At 34, Healy is the oldest player in this Australian team, but he seems to defy the maxim that the older you get, the less confident you become. His violent short-armed pulls - cow-shots is another word for them - were devastating. The whole innings was invested with his own passion for his game and his country. Whether it was cricket or revolution, you would want Healy on your side.

When he had gone, England had to undergo a second vicious attack, this time by a man with no form at all. Damien Fleming bats at 11 for Victoria, but Mark Taylor must know something because Fleming goes in at eight for Australia. In a little over two hours he made 71, his highest score in first-class cricket, putting on 65 runs with Stuart MacGill and Glenn McGrath for the last two wickets.

Alec Stewart kept his cool. As wicketkeeper, he took four catches and let through no byes. As captain, he comforted the unlucky bowlers and kept his team on their toes. All he has to do now is score a big hundred. Alan Mullally had his best analysis in Test cricket (5 for 105); Gough (1 for 135) will, as Lloyd said, bowl worse than he did for a better return than that; Dominic Cork (2 for 98) faded after a good first day; Angus Fraser (1 for 76) looked vulnerable; and Robert Croft (1 for 55) only rarely seemed relevant. Chasing 485, England might have wished they had chosen seven batsmen, especially after Atherton was dismissed for a duck, falling to McGrath for the 10th time in 17 innings when he failed to get behind a ball that carried to Mark Waugh at second slip.

However Mark Butcher, who had scored nine in five previous innings, awoke from his nightmare, and Nasser Hussain's good form on this tour was undiminished. For 13 overs they batted as though they had never heard about a curse in Brisbane. That is probably the best way.

SCOREBOARD FROM THE GABBA

Second day; Australia won toss

Australia - First Innings

(Overnight 246-5)

S R Waugh c Stewart b Mullally 112

(Thick edge, playing back, to keeper in front of first slip;330 min, 232 balls, 13 fours)

I A Healy c Mullally b Fraser 134

(Skier to mid-on; 303 min, 229 balls, 14 fours)

M S Kasprowicz c Stewart b Mullally 0

(Thin edge through to keeper; 2 min, 3 balls)

D W Fleming not out 71

(133 min, 108 balls, 11 fours)

S C G MacGill c Stewart b Mullally 20

(Thin edge through to keeper; 30 min, 30 balls, 4 fours)

G D McGrath c Atherton b Croft 5

(Steepling catch to mid-on; 35 min, 24 balls)

Extras (lb14, w1, nb6) 21

Total (657 min, 158 overs) 485

Fall: 1-30 (Slater), 2-59 (Langer), 3-106 (M Waugh), 4-106 (Taylor), 5-178 (Ponting), 6-365 (S Waugh), 7-365 (Kasprowicz), 8-420 (Healy), 9- 445 (MacGill), 10-485 (McGrath).

Bowling: Gough 34-4-135-1 (nb1,w1) (5-2-6-0 2-0-13-0 4-2-12-1 4-0-18- 0 8-0-28-0 3-0-20-0 4-0-14-0 4-0-24-0), Cork 31-6-98-2 (nb1) (9-4-9-0 6-1-22-1 4-0-10-1 3-0-15-0 2-0-13-0 6-0-29-0 1-1-0-0), Mullally 40-10- 105-5 (nb3) (7-2-16-1 1-0-2-0 7-2-23-1 1-0-4- 0 6-3-19-0 5-0-9-0 8-2-15- 2 5-1-17-1), Croft 23-6-55-1 (nb1) (4-2-3-0 2-2-0-0 4-0-15-0 7-1-16-0 1-0-2-0 4-1-14-0 1-0-5-1), Fraser 28-7-76-1 (3-1-9-0 6-1-23-0 6-2-14-0 1-1-0-0 7-1-18-0 5-1-12-1), Ramprakash 2-1-2-0 (one spell).

Progress: Second day: 250 in 381 min, 89.4 overs. 300 in 439 min, 103.4 overs. Lunch 348-5 (S Waugh 107, Healy 105 ) 120 overs. 350 in 503 min, 120.5 overs. 400 in 554 min, 132.5 overs. Tea: 445-8 (Fleming 37, MacGill 20) 149 overs. Innings closed 3.36pm.

S Waugh 50: 115 min, 80 balls, 7 fours. 100: 287 min, 201 balls, 12 fours.

Healy 50: 101 min, 88 balls, 7 fours. 100: 197 min, 160 balls, 13 fours.

Fleming 50: 105 mins, 87 balls, 7 fours.

England - First innings

M A Butcher not out 23

(75 min, 63 balls, 4 fours)

M A Atherton c M Waugh b McGrath 0

(Edge to first slip failing to control steep bounce; 17 min, 14 balls)

N Hussain not out 23

(57 min, 38 balls, 4 fours)

Extras (lb6, nb1) 7

Total (for 1, 75 min, 19 overs) 53

Fall: 1-11 (Atherton).

To bat: *A J Stewart, G P Thorpe, M R Ramprakash, D G Cork, R D B Croft, D Gough, A D Mullally, A R C Fraser.

Bowling: McGrath 7-2-13-1 (nb1) (one spell), Fleming 7-2-20-0 (4-2-10- 0 3-0-10-0), Kasprowicz 4-1-14-0, MacGill 1-1-0-0 (one spell each).

Progress: 50 in 68 min, 17 overs.

Umpires: K T Francis and D B Hair. TV Replay umpire: P D Parker. Referee: J R Reid

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