Cricket: The peril of panic setting in

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The Independent Online
This Test match has spent so long under the covers it has looked more like a Christo exhibition than the cricket masterpiece we all wished for. Crazy really. We have got farmers down here who have not seen rain for three years and, when they do, it's on the Test telecast from Lord's.

Such leaden, weeping skies over a contest so eagerly awaited by we Australians, who are desperate for a get-square after Edgbaston, are guaranteed in idle moments to do strange things to the mind; for instance, do the ticket touts suddenly cut their losses and start asking: "Wanna buy an umbrella, guv?"

See, we've been trying hard not to think about the worst - that the Ashes might be slipping and sliding away from us. And, to make it doubly depressing, was the news that some punter (a mysterious lady, not even one of the game's experts who you find draped over every cricketer's club bar) had forked out the equivalent of the Australian vice-captain's pay packet on the result being a draw.

It got worse - she looked odds-on to collect until Glenn McGrath gave us an octuple treat not seen from an Australian at Lord's since Bob Massie left Ray Illingworth's men swinging in the breeze in 1972. The tantalising question is: can Australia, weather and time permitting, level the series?

Seventy-seven is a mighty attractive lure for any team with winning on their mind. The tactic can only be rapid scoring, a touch of desperation even, possibly a brave declaration because a draw would mean that Australia have had to put a thick black line through a Test match they normally jot down as a win.

The equation, Australia one down and only four to play, would be about as cheerful as the weather at Lord's because the Test programme moves north again, to Old Trafford, Headingley and Trent Bridge, and historically none of those grounds has been kind to Australia as Lord's has been.

Manchester is 7-6 to England, Leeds 7-6 to Australia and Nottingham 5- 3 to Australia, results that can certainly be termed "line-ball", but if the present weather patterns continue then the advantage must be all England's. And, to pursue that statistical form line, England rate highly at The Oval, the venue for the final Test. Their winning margin there is 14-5.

Taylor might - only might - have had winning on his mind first thing yesterday; realistically, though, he'd have been mostly intent on his team establishing some sort of psychological edge over England, doing something to rupture not just the comfort-level of Mike Atherton's team but also one or two individuals and, not least, set the minds of England's selectors spinning. By lunch, McGrath had made Taylor's day.

The impact a panel of startled selectors can have on a Test series should never be under- estimated. Australia's selectors did some serious surgery on their top order against the West Indies last summer Down Under and it threatened, mid-series, to destabilise the team. It was the Third Test at the MCG and the West Indies, down 2-0, won by six wickets.

At the moment, Messrs Graveney, Gatting and Gooch are faced with a similar predicament - the Lord's scoreline, not so much the 77 as "England, three for 13", merely confirmed the first innings stumble at Edgbaston, a soft top order.

If left intact it can only widen the smile now spreading across the face of McGrath and, when Paul Reiffel is fitter England can expect him to bowl a little fuller and a lot straighter.

McGrath bowled some rip-snorters; one went down the slope fatally to confuse Alec Stewart and the next left Graham Thorpe with a lot more to ponder other than just Ian Healy's good sportsmanship. Not long after that he got one to come up the slope at Thorpe, a painful surprise for one of England's best batting talents.

For sure, this is a bowlers' Test - a relaid pitch occasionally playing at variable heights, and a heavy atmosphere, and rain breaks to interrupt a batsman's concentration - but that should in no way undermine the improvement McGrath has achieved since his First Test disappointment. He has given the Three Gs something to think about, some panel beating on the England batting maybe.

Of course, it would be nothing more drastic than a replacement for Mark Butcher, who looks a bit out of his depth, but it would create that shadow of doubt that can suddenly prick a team's confidence. And, can John Crawley manage to hold his place?

Still, the fact remains Australia have the job in front of them. In this nation of gamblers we'd be quite happy to hear the mystery lady punter, if she'd come up trumps on the draw, to announce she was doubling up her winnings with a wager on Australia to retain the Ashes.