England must keep Ashes fire burning

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The Independent Online

The scoreline may read 3-1, following Mark Butcher's bonanza at Headingley, but, as England and Australia square-up for the final Test of the series, there are still profound differences between the players on each side. Judging by the injury count this summer, the main one is the sheer willingness to play Test cricket and, if there was a mettle detector at The Oval yesterday, it would have registered a bleep over Steve Waugh but not Alex Tudor.

Carried off on a stretcher moments before his side retained the Ashes at Trent Bridge, the Australian has left no agony untouched or muscle fibre untreated in the quest to get his injured calf fit for this Test. He may not make it – he has a final fitness Test this morning – but he has endured pain and sweated buckets to give himself the best possible chance of one last Test in Blighty.

"It's not the fact that it will be my last one in England but the fact that it is a Test match," said Waugh yesterday. "I need to be nearly 100 per cent, so I'm giving myself until a hour before the start just to make sure I'm making the right decision. But it's a Test match, and you've got to get out there if you can."

Tudor, by contrast, has made himself unavailable on his home ground. Apparently he felt some discomfort in his right hip after bowling just four overs in Australia's second innings at Headingley and is now unable to play as a result.

He nearly pulled out of the Trent Bridge Test as well, but ruled himself fit at the last moment, a decision that brought him six wickets in the match. Yet that is the exception and in the past he has withdrawn from Tests with ailments as diverse as back, hip and knee. Indeed, since his debut against Australia in December 1998, he has played just five Tests.

In a not very veiled criticism of him yesterday, his captain Nasser Hussain said: "He did not mention the injury on the pitch at Headingley but we've got physios, sociologists and mind people in the dressing-room to work that out between them." It was a cutting remark that implies Tudor's problems are not just physical.

"Alex has had his injury problems but he's also a fine prospect, so we can't just wash our hands of him," added Hussain. "I'm not a bowler, but he's had his fair share of niggles, so it is something he has to sort out himself." When put into plain speech, something Hussain has presumably already done to Tudor, it means: "I cannot pick wimps when there is men's work to be done".

Given the unlikely proposition that England will play two spinners, Tudor's place will be taken by either Richard Johnson or James Ormond. Johnson was a late call-up for Trent Bridge when Chris Silverwood ricked his back, but was overlooked for Headingley in favour of the now injured Alan Mullally.

Logic would dictate that Johnson receives the nod in front or Ormond, but the Leicestershire pace man can also bowl off-spin, a type of bowling which enabled him to take 5 for 143 against Yorkshire. With all the clues pointing to a recall for Phil Tufnell over Robert Croft, Ormond, in a utility role that may seduce Australia into playing Colin Miller in place of Brett Lee, could be the one to make his debut.

Tufnell's return to The Oval, his first Test since January 2000, will surely not be resisted by England. In a horses for courses way, his figures at the ground cannot be faulted. In his four Tests there, the left-arm spinner has taken 24 wickets at an average of 18.83, including hauls of 6 of 25 versus the West Indies in 1991, and 7 for 66 against Australia four years ago. If you go back as far as 1987, all the other spinners to play there, and there have been 14 of them, average 123 runs per wicket.

The pitch, described by Hussain as "dry," but with the likelihood that the "ball would disturb the surface later in the match", is puzzling enough for Australia to wait until this morning to finalise their bowling attack, a unit which may include Miller.

Waugh's decision to play aside, one batting change has already been made, with Michael Slater being dropped for Justin Langer. Officially, the change is being made for cricketing reasons, with Slater's recent form being given as a reason for the almost formless Langer, a batsman yet to play a Test in England, to take his place.

Slater scored 21 and 16 in the Headingley Test, but caused more ripples when he missed the team bus going to practice after oversleeping. Yesterday, the hyperactive batsman said being dropped was hard, but hoped his removal from the side had nothing to do with the incident, for which he got fined.

"I need to talk more with the selectors," said Slater yesterday. "If they feel it is something off the field they are worried about, I'm big enough and willing enough to go down that road."

Such candid talk has been typical of the visitors, who also want the Ashes urn to travel back with them. Although this is a perennial chestnut, with any Aussie request being rebuffed by MCC bluster, none have been quite as outspoken on the matter as Steve Waugh.

The Australian captain asked: "If you can't get hold of the Ashes and you can't touch them, what is the point of playing for them? As players we feel that we ought to be able to take the trophy we're playing for. It's not as if we're going to leave the urn on the plane or lose it at the airport."

Waugh, who has just become patron of the Vitiligo society – a condition character- ised by de-pigmentation of the skin – has a point, and one backed by Hussain. Both miss the point though, and like this Test it is the concept and honour, rather than the trophy, that distinguishes Ashes matches from the rest.

ENGLAND (from): N Hussain (Essex, capt), M A Atherton (Lancashire), M E Trescothick (Somerset), M A Butcher (Surrey), M R Ramprakash (Middlesex), Usman Afzaal (Nottinghamshire), A J Stewart (Surrey, wkt), R D B Croft (Glamorgan), A R Caddick (Somerset), D Gough (Yorkshire), R L Johnson (Middlesex), J Ormond (Leicestershire), P C R Tufnell (Middlesex).

AUSTRALIA (from): S R Waugh (capt, if fit), M L Hayden, J L Langer, R T Ponting, M E Waugh, D R Martyn, S M Katich, A C Gilchrist (wkt, vice-capt), S K Warne, C R Miller, B Lee, J N Gillespie, G D McGrath.

Umpires: P Willey (Eng) and R Koertzen (SA).

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