Slipshod habits are really catching

Second Test: Three-and-a-half lives for Gilchrist in the morning leave the hosts facing another mountain
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The Independent Online

Faint hearts should read no further. This is a story that removed the smile from the face of the Dazzler, and it is about a flaw in England's cricket at Lord's that almost certainly erased any faint hope they had of winning the Ashes. Even before England's mournful second innings, the series had already begun a descent into anti-climax yesterday morning, and the reason was simply that England could not hold on to their catches.

Adam Gilchrist is a fearsome figure batting at No 7. He holds the bat high on the handle, so it is moving unusually fast when he hits the ball, which explains the number of boundaries he scores, but it also means that, early in his innings, he is vulnerable to swing. He gets out caught by the keeper or at slip. Gilchrist had been 10 not out overnight, having batted carefully on Friday evening, then, in only the second over of a brilliantly clear, sunny morning, having added one run, he edged Darren Gough – aka the Dazzler – to second slip.

The ball flew low to Mark Butcher, who did not need to move to reach it. It was a regulation catch and he would have taken it 19 times out 20. But this was the 20th, and the ball bounced out of his hands. Gough looked daggers; Butcher looked crestfallen; and Gilchrist batted on as if it was his lucky day. "It's no fun dropping catches," he said at close of play. They provided him with plenty of it.

He had reached 33 when he carved a ball in the air into the covers. Ian Ward, who was at cover point 30 yards from the bat, had to dive to his left, but he got two hands to the ball before letting it fall. Gough sat on his haunches looking incredulous and disgusted at the same time. When he rose he walked back to his mark so slowly that Mike Atherton had to run from slip to comfort him. Gilchrist celebrated by hitting two boundaries in the same over.

Atherton himself missed the easiest of all the chances when Gilchrist was 73. His edge off Andrew Caddick went straight to first slip at chest height, just like catching practice. When England's stand-in skipper dropped it you could hear the groan even in the press box, which is hermetically sealed from the real world outside. Atherton smiled wanly. His only alternative was to cry. (He might have done that after returning to the dressing room in England's second innings, out for 20 to a dreadful shot to a turning ball from Shane Warne.)

Gilchrist had had one more scare when he was on 49. He cut the ball hard, and Butcher leapt and got his fingertips to the ball. Be generous and call it a half-chance. It means that Gilchrist was let off three-and-a-half times in one session of cricket. England were lucky to get him out for 90. His overhead swish caught an edge which was taken by Stewart. At least Gough got the wicket – the one he should have had 160 runs earlier. It was, he said "one of the more fortunate innings I have played".

A couple of months ago England beat Pakistan by an innings at Lord's, and the distinguishing feature of their cricket was the catching. Fifteen Pakistan wickets fell to catches by the keeper or the slips, and one of them – by Graham Thorpe diving to his right – was memorable. After the game, Nasser Hussain delivered a message: "If we are going to compete with the Aussies over the summer the important thing will be our catching. The kind of catches Graham Thorpe was taking today Mark Waugh has been taking for years. We have to keep our standard up if we're going to succeed this year."

The effect of the dropped catches was plain to see. After Butcher's initial error, the ground fielding deteriorated for a while. Concentration seemed to have lapsed among the fielders.

The anxiety they felt communicated itself to the crowd, whose own confidence in the team has been growing for 12 months only – since the epic victory against the West Indies at Lord's a year ago. This confidence is not deep- rooted, and yesterday you could feel it draining away.