Ashes to Athers, win or bust

Captain faces mission improbable: stop rampant Australians before it's too late
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England's most recent victory against Australia at Lord's was 67 years ago. Nothing about the match which begins on Thursday remotely suggests that the figure will not become 71. It is written, surely, in the strength of the teams, in the form, in the preparation, in the belief, in the fitness and probably in the stars.

Thus, for England to win the Second npower Test would require an overwhelming reversal of historic and present fortunes. But win they must if the quest to regain the Ashes after six losing series is to remain realistic (if it was ever that). Should the tourists, winners going away at Edgbaston, triumph again, there is a real danger that they would become rampant. They have made no secret of their intention to win the rubber 5-0, and if that smacks of arrogance it is rooted in realism.

It is perfectly simple: to draw level, England have to play above themselves; to fail to increase their lead, Australia have to play below themselves. Some sympathy is in order for the hosts. They are without their captain, Nasser Hussain, and may again be without two other top-six batsmen, Graham Thorpe and Michael Vaughan, though the bulletins on Thorpe are encouraging. In addition, they have to find a replacement seam bowler to cover for the injured Matthew Hoggard.

Neither sympathy, however, nor the tea to go with it, will be of any use at all in reclaiming the elusive little urn. At all costs, England must avoid feeling sorry for themselves, since Australia will only seize on that as another weakness. Under the temporary stewardship of Michael Atherton that small but vital step is likely to be taken.

It is fascinating, not to mention significant, to have Atherton back in charge. He led England with varying levels of success, nobility and grumpiness for a record 52 Tests, but by the time he packed it in three years ago he had quite clearly had more than enough. He is back now only because of the crisis. Hussain is crocked and Alec Stewart, Thorpe and Mark Butcher all understandably declared their unavailability. Marcus Trescothick, one for the future, was rightly overlooked.

Atherton was 25 in 1993 when he assumed the England captaincy against rampant Australian tourists, the age Trescothick is now. Perhaps it was slightly too early, perhaps he needed a stronger side to bring out his best, perhaps all his fine plans were undermined by the manager-coach, Raymond Illingworth, perhaps the dirt-in-the pocket incident at Lord's against South Africa altered the tenor of his tenure irrevocably.

He has had time to mull over that period, to become one of the lads again and, despite Stewart's greater age and similar experience, the wise old man of the dressing room at the same time. All new players coming into the side speak in almost reverential tones about Atherton once they have played with him.

So, respect is guaranteed. Atherton then has to consider his approach to the leadership. He was famously undemonstrative when the job was his permanently, sometimes maddeningly so. You wanted him to be seen to be doing something, although this was probably only because England were usually up the creek at the time. Surely, he will treat his bowlers with more tender, loving care. He will have got to know them better now.

Atherton, then, is crucial to England's performance – and let us not forget his batsmanship either – but it is distinctly unlikely that the match will be won by a tactical masterstroke. The conquerors will be overthrown only by England being all for one and one for all.

The selectors met on Friday for a long chat about their options. There are not many since they have already used 16 players this summer and are now on their third captain (fourth this year). Thorpe, whose calf injury has taken an age to clear up, will be picked in a squad of 14. There is no certainty that he will be fit, but he is the fulcrum of England's order.

As David Graveney, the chairman of selectors, said: "We will give him as much time as possible to prove his fitness. He is a key player and we are anxious to have him back."

Mark Ramprakash will also be selected, having recovered from the hamstring tweak which prevented his recall at Edgbaston. Ramprakash's Test record at Lord's matches that of England against Australia. A total of 81 runs in 11 innings is woeful, but seeing him there in the Benson and Hedges Cup final yesterday, albeit against a somewhat different attack, was to see a class act.

If Thorpe and Ramprakash both play it will probably be at the expense of Usman Afzaal, and not only because he failed in both innings at Edgbaston. He was a surprising selection in the first place, ahead of Owais Shah. It was explained that there were worries the Australians had got Shah's number in the NatWest Series.

There was something in this argument, but it did not make Afzaal a natural choice. His average this season is 36, and he has not made a century. He was summoned because the word of mouth was good. Graveney said they had asked around and the umpires and everybody else spoke highly of him. There was also the matter of his having been on an A tour, and the need to justify these.

If the umpires were raving about his batting (and it is true that men with county averages in the thirties have made the step up to Tests before, witness no less than Marcus Trescothick and Michael Vaughan) they might also have mentioned another aspect of his play. Afzaal's fielding at Edgbaston was plain dreadful, it is a known weakness and one he will have to overcome to deserve consideration again. The wisdom of umpires must never be underestimated, but in a world of continuity and central contracts, selectors have to be more precise in their targets.

The extra seam bowler has only a minimal chance of playing, since Darren Gough and Andrew Caddick are likely to be supplemented by Dominic Cork and Craig White. There is a suspicion that Cork has become more bravado than bravura, but Lord's has always brought out his competitive edge.

In case of further breakdown, the selectors have cast their net wide. In case it was any use, they let the B&H final take place before making up their minds. This implied they were watching Alex Tudor and Martin Bicknell. Tudor's fitness record, sadly, will almost certainly mean he cannot be called up. Bicknell is Surrey's leading wicket-taker this season with 33 at 26. He is bowling well again, but at 32 does he really have an inter-national future? No. Could he bowl out the Aussies now? No.

Chris Silverwood and Alan Mullally were also discussed, though Steve Kirby, the Yorkshire tyro who has burst on to the scene with 25 wickets in four matches (19 at Headingley) was not. Certain Australians have made the case for Mullally, which may be reason enough to omit him. Silverwood is fast but wayward.

History is against them, and not only that. Sure, they won at Lord's in 1934 by an innings and 38 runs after a tour de force performance by Hedley Verity, who took 15 for 104 in the match. But they lost the Ashes.