Rookie wins respect for persevering under fire

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The Independent Online

Ponting had dead-batted the inquiries. He was only interested in picking the best team for this Test. He was looking no further than the next five days. But Tait, as he lay awake in his hotel room off Maid Marian Way that night, fretting, trying to conjure images of English stumps and helmets cartwheeling before him, knew better. Gillespie's place was his to be seized, fitness permitting, for the next decade. With Glenn McGrath's body creaking, and Gillespie waning, there was a vacancy alongside Brett Lee in Australia's new-ball attack. However, a poor display and he would drop back behind Michael Kasprowicz in the pecking order, which would mean that if McGrath recovered in time for the Oval Test that Tait would be back on drinks duty. And by the time the next opening arose who knows what the state of his body and bowling would be?

Tait is not the only aspirant. Nathan Bracken, Stuart Clarke and others wait back home.

Tait would be familiar with the story of Matt Nicholson, the last Australian pace bowler to make his bow against the old enemy. At Melbourne, in 1999, Nicholson took 4 for 115, including the wicket of Nasser Hussain twice. He then lost his line and, though still playing state cricket, is a long way from Test selection.

There was plenty for Tait to ponder as he stared at the ceiling in the half-light. Oh yes, and it was also Australia's most important Test for 20 years.

So it was a nervous 22-year-old who arrived at Trent Bridge yesterday morning for what is only his 28th first-class match. His warm-up did not go well, the ball refusing to follow his dictate. Perhaps this was why Ponting, contrary to what he had said on Wednesday, asked Kasprowicz to open with Lee in McGrath's absence, not Tait. The debutant, the first of this series, was instead sent to mid-on. For 42 minutes he watched and waited as Marcus Trescothick and Andrew Strauss eased their way to 35 off 10 overs.

With few balls coming his way, Tait's role had been restricted to putting an arm around Lee or Kasprowicz whenever one had beaten the bat or, more commonly, been dispatched to the fence. The little chats were more to do with easing Tait into the match than settling his team-mate, for the waiting could only exacerbate his nerves.

Much had been made, by Ponting and Michael Vaughan, of the need to seize the initiative, to build a momentum which could carry one team all the way to the Oval, and the Ashes.

Then came the call. As Tait marked out his run, did his mind wander back to his English first-class debut, for Durham, last summer? Then his first over had comprised 10 balls, four of them no-balls. Eleven overs later he had gone for 112 runs, including 21 no-balls, and set the Somerset No 10 batsman Richard Johnson on the way to a 63-ball century. Another gruesome outing for Durham later and he was back on the plane Down Under to rebuild his career.

So it was with relief he delivered his first over without a whisper from the umpire and barely a murmur from the batsmen. Strauss had pulled him for two but even that was encouraging - with Tait reaching 93mph the batsman was late into the shot.

An over later Tait's mood was less chirpy. With Trescothick cracking two boundaries he had gone for 11 in an over, including a dreaded no-ball. The ironic cheers he received from the William Clarke Stand, as he went back to long leg he could have done without.

England, Tait and Ponting knew, had targeted Gillespie, successfully. It was how Tait had gained his place in the team. Now Trescothick was looking to climb into the debutant and, after five overs, and 26 runs, Ponting, perhaps for the first time in years wishing that Australia had gone into a Test with five bowlers, took him out of the attack.

Test cricket, as Warne had said on the eve of this tie, is a test of character and Tait did not shirk the challenge. He came out early after lunch to practise in front of the pavilion, ignoring the taunts of the wise guys as he searched for rhythm. It seemed to have worked as he returned to the attack with a maiden to Vaughan.

Then the rain came back but, as Tait sat in the pavilion, waiting for the restart, the only cloud over him was physical, not mental. When the weather cleared Tait ran in at a gallop and, fourth ball back, brought a beautiful inswinger back inside Trescothick's drive to castle him. Tait rejoiced, sprinting down the wicket arms outstretched and head looking to the heavens in gratitude before jumping into Adam Gilchrist's arms. The pair were submerged by team-mates delighting in the rookie's reward.

Eleven balls later Ian Bell nibbled at another ball of full length and Gilchrist swooped to catch. The country boy from the Adelaide Hills suddenly knew he belonged in the baggy green.

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