England at point of no return

Andrew Longmore sees a weakness for Gough and Co to exploit at Headingley
Click to follow
The Independent Online
It has taken Mike Atherton 43 Tests to reach the point of no return. He took over the captaincy four years ago vowing that his new England would be harder to beat and he has been true to his word, mostly. Now, his side - and, at long last, it is his side - stand within three Tests of regaining the Ashes which, it should be said, is three Tests closer than most of us expected when the Australians first landed on these shores in mid-May. He also stands within three Tests of losing the England captaincy, which is the certain penalty for defeated Ashes captains.

If England lose, Atherton will probably volunteer to return to the back benches anyway, like John Major, where he can act the elder statesman and speak his mind. Though clearly intelligent and articulate, he has found the constraints of high office have deadened his eloquence. Atherton confines his utterances at press conferences to one-line captions now. Nor has his recent autobiography shed much light on the mysterious figure behind the tousled locks and the lopsided smile. Atherton's story will be worth reading when he cares to tell it, uncensored, away from the dispatch box.

Starting with Headingley on Thursday, the next five weeks will determine whether the central tale will be one of thundering triumph or gallant failure and the central figure a hero or a turnip. The fashionable view, after Old Trafford, is that Australia have regained the psychological high ground. Indeed, Australia's recovery did not start, as was widely believed, at Lord's but on the third day at Edgbaston, when their batsmen frolicked to 256 for 1 and the Jeremiahs in the press corps predicted a reversal of fortunes the equal of Headingley 1981. England realised that day how difficult the rest of the series would be. Only an unholy alliance of the weather over the first four days at Lord's and some stubborn defending on the last preserved the lead into Old Trafford. "We have improved from Test to Test," Geoff Marsh, the Australian coach, said. "But a psychological advantage means nothing if we don't play well."

The Australians have re-emerged from a mid-tour break eager to pick up where they left off. Given the acrimonious debate about the presence of wives and families on England's recent tours, a built-in week's furlough has its attractions. But it says much for the confidence of the Australians that they can contemplate such a hiatus. "There is always a danger in taking a few days' off, but it's not as if we've been sitting on the beach," Marsh said. "The boys have been working hard and played three games. All sportsmen need a break at some point." England's hope is that the momentum so painstakingly gained at Old Trafford has been lost somewhere on the golf courses of Scotland.

Australia's weakness remains at the top of the order. Apart from the second innings at Edgbaston when Taylor and Elliott put on 133, their four first-wicket partnerships have totalled 29. Taylor's form, though fair in county games, is woeful at Test level; Elliott too seems vulnerable to the ball moving away early in his innings. At Lord's his century was courtesy of some dreadful England catching. Gough and Headley will fancy their chances of another early breakthrough on a Headingley pitch liable - in Australia's estimation anyway - to be much the same as the sporting ones of variable bounce and extravagant movement on offer so far. Peter Marron overdid it a bit at Old Trafford, preparing a wicket as ideal for Steve Waugh's pugnacity as for Shane Warne's audacity.

On his home ground, with the Western Terrace in full - and doubtless rather crude - cry, Gough will be the key man for England. He is the bowler most respected by the Australian batsmen, the one who can suddenly produce an unplayable ball or a spell of genuine ferocity, the one who, like Glenn McGrath or Warne, can win Test matches in an hour.

Having made just one change - Headley for Malcolm - in the first three Tests, England might be persuaded by the form of Mike Smith to make a second. Smith, who took 10 wickets in Gloucestershire's victory over Derbyshire, has been brought in as cover for Headley but could still play at the expense of Andy Caddick. The recent fate of the left-armers Ilott, Brown and Mullally does not augur well for the switch. If Caddick does lose out, the whole attack from the last Test at Headingley - Caddick, Cork, Lewis and Mullally - will be different, quite apart from Salisbury, Min Patel, Knight, Russell, Brown, Irani and Hick, who could make up the forgotten Test class of '96.

Since then, England have tried to forge a collective strength, following the lead of the Australians, who themselves have the ticklish problem of Michael Bevan to overcome. The inclusion of Ricky Ponting would solidify the batting, but lessen Taylor's options with the ball. Ponting can do no wrong at present. Last week, he scored an unbeaten first-class hundred and went round St Andrews in 75. His Test debut in England cannot surely be long postponed.