Cricket / Third Test: England reliant on peashooter power: Gooch goes into action with an untried bowling battery that holds little fear for Australia's batting big guns

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WHILE the zodiacal view through every telescope bar Lord Ted's is registering a total eclipse, there is one small chink of light permeating the darkness. England's Test team might be a waste of space, but as far as English Test cricket is concerned there is barely enough space to accommodate all those who still want to watch it.

England do not so much attract crowds these days as mourners at a funeral, yet Trent Bridge has long since been sold out for the first three days, and pre-sold bookings amount to upwards of pounds 750,000. Only in Yorkshire and Lancashire, where Venus would have to be aligned to Macclesfield and Pudsey before they stumped up in advance of the weather forecast, are there seats to be had at short notice.

This is a reassuring sign that Test cricket flourishes in England like nowhere else, and almost single-handedly props up a domestic system that generates less small change than a Saturday morning harmonica player outside Woolworths. It also, however, means that the Test and County Cricket Board's emphasis is increasingly geared more towards marketing at a time when there are justifiable worries about having a team worth selling.

Ted Dexter, the chairman, recently bemoaned the fact that he had spent three hours in an England committee meeting without having actually talked about cricket, and players are now as heavily coached in male modelling as in batting and bowling. This (notwithstanding one recent private enterprise from Chris Lewis) largely involves the wearing of clothes, just so long as they are sponsored clothes.

Not surprisingly, the Lord's fax machine could only be approached with a pair of oven gloves after England's 3-0 defeat in India this winter, but what is not so well known is that the majority of messages were not fired off by angry cricket officials, but by a jealous sponsor wanting to know why Graham Gooch was wearing a T-shirt advertising a different benefactor at the post- Bombay press conference.

If today's full house is a marketing triumph to rank alongside selling refrigerators to Eskimos, it is England's selection policies as much as results that are testing public loyalty. The Southern African connection has recently been augmented by a New Zealander opening the bowling, and with Martin McCague making his debut here, we are not so much looking at an England cricket team as a United Nations rescue package.

McCague is a product of the Australian Cricket Academy, has played representative cricket for Australia at Under-19 level, and qualifies for England by having spent the first of his 24 years in Northern Ireland. He is about as English as Rolf Harris, and there are a number of English batsmen well aware that McCague's Australian upbringing also extends to on-field dialogue drawn from the Mervyn Hughes book of subtle repartee.

As Michael Atherton is the only player in this side to be selected from north of Watford, the best chance of getting a game for England is either to go abroad or go to Essex.

Gooch said yesterday that he had 'enough on his plate trying to win a cricket match' without worrying about whether McCague was less likely to greet him with 'morning, old boy' than 'g'day, mate', although Allan Border said yesterday that as far as he was concerned, McCague was a pukka Australian. One of Sydney's newspapers summed it up rather well, describing McCague as 'a rat joining a sinking ship'.

With Alan Igglesden ruled out because of a side strain yesterday, McCague will be one of three members of a four-man attack today yet to bowl a ball, or purvey a pie, in Test cricket. This statistic looks even more uncomfortable in the light of the 1989 Test here, when Australia made 301 for 0 on the opening day, declared at 602 for 6, and eventually won by a record (innings and 180 runs) margin for an Ashes Test in England.

The Trent Bridge pitch has been the subject of more interest than usual this week, given the rumours that the groundsman has prepared a verdant greentop upon which England's bowlers (or those bowlers qualified for England, shall we say) will slay the Antipodean invader with a battery of swing and seam.

However, this can be dismissed almost as peremptorily as an England batsman. Apart from replacing Craig McDermott with another seamer, Australia will once again play both spinners, and Border said yesterday: 'If the pitch stays like this, and we win the toss, I'm batting.'

The pitch is certainly a little greener than is customary for a Test, but nothing like the sort of surface Ron Allsopp used to prepare for Richard Hadlee, and prospects of play on all five days have less to do with how green is the pitch, as how green is England's batting.

No other colour is applicable to the bowling, which may be the most inexperienced attack England have put out since 15 March 1877 - the morning of the first Test ever played.

Igglesden's absence means that England's four bowlers will have a maximum of nine Test wickets between them, and in the event of Peter Such being left out, England's list of leading Test wicket-takers will read: 1 - G Gooch (22); 2 - A Caddick and M Atherton (one each).

Atherton and Mark Lathwell will open, with Robin Smith at No 3, and Gooch (having succumbed to Lord Ted's entreaties) will bat at No 5 or 6. The final irony will be if England's best batsman finds himself high, dry, and out of partners at 12 not out.

(Photograph omitted)