England captain's hard work goes to waste

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England 198-7 v Australia If you had asked for a scenario before the start of this game in which the same pair of English batsmen would be batting four and a half hours after they first came together, you would have arrived at the not unreasonable conclusion that England must have been following on.

However, while Michael Atherton and John Crawley managed - between 12 noon and half past five - to raise English spirits to as high a level as they have been all tour, by the end of the day England's 1995 model bore a suspicious resemblance to 1994's clapped-out old banger.

In this series, England batsmen have not so much gone in for long-term relationships as the equivalent of flirty one-night stands, and if you were to remove the Graeme Hick-Graham Thorpe liaison in Brisbane, and the Atherton-Crawley partnership of 174 here yesterday, England are averaging 14 runs per wicket.

If the meat in the sandwich was generous enough, the two slices of bread were thin enough to have cut your finger on. After an hour, England were 20 for 3, Atherton and Crawley then took it on to 194 for 3, and Australia's final burst with the second newball reduced them to 198 for 7 by stumps.

In fairness to England, Craig McDermott bowled superbly with both new balls, and they swung for McDermott and Damien Fleming through shirt-drenching humidity. Even so, Shane Warne never looked like taking a wicket, and England ultimately squandered a good toss to win on a Sydney pitch that was as slow as ever, but unusually short of purchase for the spinners.

There was a wittier banner than usual at one end of the ground ("If The Poms Bat First, Tell The Taxi To Wait") and the meter would barely have clocked up 50 cents before England lost a wicket. Mind you, in a match starting at midnight English time, there were one or two bets that England would lose their first batsman before Big Ben had finishing chiming in 1995.

They were not far out either, Graham Gooch edging the last ball of Fleming's first over to Ian Healy and, beautiful outswinger though it was, the old boy's footwork is not going to get him a new career in tap dancing if, as he is now saying, he packs in Test cricket if he does not make a big score before the end of the series.

Hick's feet were also static as McDermott speared a straight, angled delivery into middle and leg stumps, and Thorpe was beaten for pace as McDermott's yorker had him lbw on the boot. At 20 for 3, England had lost their previous 21 Test wickets for 195, and Atherton's comments of the previous day about the mental strains imposed by the "worst press corps in the world" were being mirrored in the press box about the mental strains of reporting on the world's worst cricket team.

Atherton had sounded off about being pilloried for not practising on the day after the Melbourne Test, and he certainly had a point. Back-to-back Test matches, with no rest day here, almost demanded the day off, and even Gooch, who is like a 40-a-day smoker with his addiction to the nets, could not see any point in it. Like so much in life, the only point to a net would have been for the sake of appearances, and Atherton is pretty stubborn when it comes to the media telling him what he should be doing.

The captain looked uncharacteristically fretful yesterday morning, as though he was less concerned by McDermott's outswinger than "Idle Beach Bums Botch It Again" type headlines. He was close to snicking half a dozen McDermott deliveries, and got away with an adjacent looking lbw against Fleming when he had made 15.

He was also desperate enough to steal a run when a fielder's return was deflected off his bat, a breach of etiquette that would have caused a village green fixture to be cancelled, and by lunch he had still managed only 21 runs. In England's last Test here, he scored, in 451 minutes, the slowest Ashes century ever made at the SCG, and would have settled for something similar this time.

He allowed himself to be talked out of picking Crawley in favour of Mike Gatting for the Brisbane Test, and could hardly pick him in Melbourne after Gatting's unbeaten 200 in Toowoomba. Crawley has followed Atherton at Manchester Grammar School, Cambridge University, and Lancashire, and Atherton regards him as one of English cricket's brighter long-term Test batsmen.

Most share Atherton's view of Crawley's class, with some reservations about his on-side bias. Yesterday, most of Crawley's 72 runs were tucked away off the legs, but without any sign of the crooked bat which blighted his first two Tests last summer, and there seemed real hope of their still being together at stumps when McDermott took the second new ball.

McDermott had been off the field for over an hour during the afternoon, having been suffering from stomach cramps and dehydration from as early as his second over. He had also been physically sick (or, to use his own Australian vernacular: "I had a bit of an up and under down at deep backward square, mate") but his first delivery with the second new ball nipped back to bowl Atherton through the gate.

He then had Gatting caught at the wicket with a late outswinger, and a similar delivery from Fleming was snicked to second slip by Crawley. The last wicket was a farcical run-out cock-up between Angus Fraser, who came in when Phillip DeFreitas withdrew with a hamstring strain, and Steven Rhodes, who one way and another cannot get a run in this series.

Very nearly as farcical was the sight of Fraser coming in as nightwatchman with half an hour left for play, but England are no longer a team which really knows what it is doing. Ray Illingworth, the chairman of selectors, announced at lunchtime that NeilFairbrother was flying in to replace the injured Craig White, whereupon Keith Fletcher, the team manager, promptly denied it.

" What Illy says is up to Illy," Fletcher said. "Fairbrother has not been called for, certainly not by me, and certainly not by Illingworth." Illingworth was then appraised of Fletcher's comments, and said: "He said what?" For just about the first time ever, Illy was then stumped for words, and settled for strange gurgling noises and a roll of the eyeballs before Mrs Illingworth warned him not to get too "wound up''. The marriage between Illingworth and Fletcher was never made in heaven, and may soon involve pots, pans and rolling pins at 10 paces. Fairbrother is due to arrive on Thursday.

England A Tour: Page 18