THE seven-batsmen routine was worth a try, but it looks like turning out to be the rough equivalent of issuing King Canute with a snorkel. The tide continued to roll in yesterday, and it may yet be a case of England merely taking a little longer to drown.
Having only just squeezed past 200 in their previous two first innings, 276 for 6 does not, on the face of it, look too bad. However, for all the pre- match talk about a juicy greentop, this is a 400 minimum pitch, and only a team as completely on their uppers as England could have made such hard work of batting against an Australian attack that, with the notable exception of Merv Hughes, made a serious bid for the Rodney Marsh pie- throwing award.
Brendon Julian's bowling was a licence to print runs through the leg side, Shane Warne went through a prolonged period when he could scarcely purvey anything other than a long hop, and Tim May's overs were severely rationed after being minced by Robin Smith for 21 runs in two overs immediately after lunch.
Smith, promoted to replace Mike Gatting at No 3, had more or less given up his place in this side before scoring 191 off the tourists at Southampton last weekend, but he vindicated his selection with a typically belligerent 86, which even contained moments when spin appeared to be something other to him than a fiendish form of Chinese water torture.
In the current debate on what constitutes an Englishman (one or two cynics might have wondered whether Martin McCague's inclusion at the expense of Martin Bicknell was a panic measure in case the ICC starts plugging loopholes at their annual conference on Wednesday), Smith is more bush hat and biltong than bowler hat and roast beef, but his great attribute is that he would shed blood for any side he played for, whether it be England, South Africa, or the Outer Hebrides.
Smith is a nervous starter, and might have been out for nought had his top-edged pull off Hughes gone straight up in the air instead of over the wicketkeeper's head. He and Hughes have arrived at a kind of mutual respect these days, and Merv contented himself with a glare rather than a blast from the moustache.
Another thing about Smith is that, pukka Englishman or not, he certainly likes batting here, and his first seven centuries were all made in this country before he broke his overseas duck in Sri Lanka last winter. Yesterday he was on course for No 9 until he half-drove at a full toss from Julian, and the bowler snaked out his left hand to take a wonderful reflex catch. Smith's dismissal came almost immediately after Alec Stewart had tossed away his wicket, spearing a long hop from Warne that spun so wide that Stewart did remarkably well to reach it, let alone drill it straight to cover. Before these two got out, England were coasting along at 153 for 2, and from then on it was back to the familiar routine of fighting from the trenches.
Smith was one of the few English batsmen to distinguish themselves in the 1989 series against Australia, averaging more than 60, compared with the next best of 39 from Jack Russell, who, as the selectors keep reminding us, cannot bat at all, and David Gower (36), who is currently being denied the opportunity. Graham Thorpe is the preferred left-hander here, and decent player though he undoubtedly is, you would not have known it from his dismissal, an eyes-closed spliced jab to gully when Hughes dug one into his rib-cage.
Gooch was not seduced into an insertion despite the extra grass on the surface and a clammy morning mist (although he thought about it) and Mark Lathwell's nerves would not have been calmed by the arrival of a stray dog as he prepared to face his first ball in Test cricket. The dog was eventually captured by Hughes, as was, after a brief but breezy stay, Lathwell. He was around long enough to confirm both his talent and an uninhibited temperament, although a shade more foot movement at this level might be required for a permanent tenancy.
Unlike Smith and Stewart, Lathwell at least got out to a decent delivery, Hughes finding just enough movement to locate the outside edge, while Michael Atherton's dismissal to a catch at silly point that did not appear remotely to involve his bat, provided further evidence that teams down on their luck invariably get the wrong end of dodgy decisions.
Gooch's arrival at No 5 provided a curious look to the scoreboard, with Gooch on 0 and Smith 85, which in days gone by would have suggested an innings of monumental blocking from the captain. However, he parted company with Smith almost immediately, and when Thorpe fell cheaply, the pre-match fear that Gooch might run out of partners began to assume uncomfortable proportions.
Even more uncomfortable, however - when Hughes cramped Gooch into a leading edge to short extra cover soon after tea - was the sight of Andrew Caddick arriving at 220 for 6, at which point it looked short odds on England being bowled out on the first day. Caddick, though, got his head down in much the same commendable manner as he had in the previous two Test matches, and he and Nasser Hussain stuck it out with no little fortitude until the close.
Hussain has been out of favour since the 1990 tour to the West Indies, when he played in three Test matches without passing 50, largely because the ball was mostly passing his nose. He is an expressive individual, whose lack of appearances in Test cricket are more closely linked to a surfeit of appearances in headmasters' studies than to any shortage of talent, as his maiden half-century yesterday confirmed.
However, Australia are only four overs into the second new ball, and England have a bit to do this morning to avoid yet another Test match with their backs pinned firmly to the wall.
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