Limping England must show pride of Lions

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The Independent Online

While it is easier for adrenalin to get you through 80 minutes than five days, England must take heart from the performance of the British and Irish Lions rugby union team against Australia in Brisbane. Injuries can turn a team and its tactics on their heads, but such adversity can bring others to the fore, as two Irish centres showed at The Gabba on Saturday.

As messrs O'Driscoll and Henderson illustrated so handsomely, the secret is in the character and spirit of the replacements. When the first Test against Australia begins on Thursday at Edgbaston, England are almost certain to be without their best batsman, Graham Thorpe, and possibly their No 3, Michael Vaughan. Both would be badly missed, especially Thorpe, whose star in the last year has reached world-class luminosity.

Unless his calf injury is miraculously healed, the left-hander's place will be taken by his Surrey team-mate Mark Ramprakash, a batsman as much filled with talent as by neuroses. But England will need Ramprakash to perform and if Duncan Fletcher has not already sent him a tape of the Lions' performance, it ought to be waiting for him when he reaches his hotel room today.

A batsmen whose 42 Tests have come in fits and starts, Ramprakash left Middlesex last season to make a fresh, transpontine start at The Oval. Citing the need for First Division cricket, the move has paid dividends with the batsman averaging about 60 for his new masters.

His selection for Edgbaston, ahead of his former protégé Owais Shah, probably means England are contemplating the draw. Unlike Thorpe, Ramprakash is a one-paced batsman, whose technical excellence allows him to play long innings.

What he cannot find, as Thorpe and an on-song Alec Stewart have done in the past, is that extra gear to counter-attack or take advantage of flagging bowlers.

He does have form against Australia, though, and in his eight Tests against them averages 43.9 with six half-centuries. Only the man he looks like replacing can claim a better record.

Vaughan's injury is a cyst on the knee, though there are thought to be cartilage complications as well. For a batsman, Vaughan has been uncommonly prone to injury in his short career, missing as many matches as he has played since his debut in South Africa 18 months ago.

He will be given a fitness test at Edgbaston today and assessed for reaction on Tuesday. Although nobody has been officially named, it would be astounding if both Shah and Paul Collingwood had not both been asked to stand by on amber. If either has to play, the obvious move would be to bring Ian Ward, an opener, up to three and slot the newcomer in front of Craig White at seven.

The injury to England's centrally contracted spinner, Ashley Giles, has caused friction between county and country. Giles is a big man and had suffered from achilles problems for some time. After a recurrence in Sri Lanka he was told by the England physio, Dean Conway, to rest for six to eight weeks.

Warwickshire, meanwhile, wanted him to undergo surgery, which he has done. Rest prevailed, though judging from the swelling that followed his first extensive bowl last weekend, the problem has not gone away and a Test match is surely a risk too far.

Unless the Edgbaston pitch has changed dramatically in character, or Ricky Ponting is being specifically targeted, spin is likely to be redundant. If not, then Robert Croft will come into the reckoning ahead of Phil Tufnell, but only because England cannot afford to lengthen their tail any further.

If the gloom on the injury front does not look like lifting, the outlook for Stewart is brightening and yesterday was the deadline for his accuser, bookmaker Mukesh Gupta, to agree to give evidence under oath. Unless a last-minute change of heart from Gupta has loosened his tongue, Stewart can probably look forward to the rest of his career facing bowlers rather than brickbats.

A key all-rounder for England, it is imperative Stewart is at the top of his game, if only to keep pace with Adam Gilchrist, who is in punishing form with the bat. But with one burden seemingly lifted, another called Australia hovers into view. Stewart, with batting and wicketkeeping duties to perform, is in for a tough summer.

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