England seek positives minus Gough

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The Independent Online
England go into today's fifth Test match here knowing that nothing short of victory can keep their Holy Grail - of regaining the Ashes - alive. With two Tests of the series remaining, England trail Australia two matches to one. But if the clarity of their quest will help to concentrate minds and bodies over the next five days, the absence of Darren Gough, their leading wicket-taker in the series, has reduced morale at the worst possible moment. Indeed, a win over Australia now has probably never seemed quite so difficult.

Having arrived with his knee inflamed from the Headingley Test - an injury exacerbated by two recent games for Yorkshire - it did not take long yesterday for Gough to rule himself out. In fact he managed just 12 balls before pronouncing it "sore" and unlikely to last the rigours of a five-day Test match.

"It's heartbreaking," said the fast bowler later, as England prepared without him for the first time in nine Tests. Lamenting his latest injury, he added: "I've already missed enough Test cricket for my whole career."

With 16 wickets so far in the series, England will badly miss his striking ability, although Devon Malcolm, his likely replacement, bowled well earlier in the series before he was dropped. Less easy to replace though will be Gough's unfettered energy. Like others in this England side, he has his faults, though lack of effort and enthusiasm are not among them.

Injury is sport's cruellest foe, for it can turn fortune on its head. Not so long ago, England had both Gough and Dominic Cork doing their bidding for them. However, when Cork became injured earlier in the season, it was noticeable that Gough thrived on his absence, especially at Edgbaston where he bowled superbly. With the Yorkshireman now missing, England will hope one or two of the other bowlers become similarly inspired.

It was a point Taylor also re-inforced, pointing out the sudden improvements made by Glenn McGrath, after Australia lost two of their front line bowlers, Craig McDermott and Damien Fleming, before their last Test series in the West Indies.

Indeed inspiration is the word on everyone's lips, and surely the main reason why the Hollioake brothers were selected, when perhaps county form dictated otherwise.

Yesterday, it was not certain if both would play, as England, toying with the possibility of playing two spinners, had still not decided the final balance of their attack. If both Tufnell and Croft do play, then it is probable that Ben will have to wait a while longer than Adam to make his debut. In a match where the Aussie batsmen have to be kept on a tight leash, the risk of playing him as a third seamer will be seen as too great a gamble.

Mind you, if only one spinner plays, England will not only have its second- ever teenage debutant, but a fifth set of Test playing brothers as well, a feat last performed in 1957 when Peter and Dick Richardson played against the West Indies.

But while the move scores highly for imagination and front, it will leave England's bowling without much variety, save for a surfeit of seam bowlers. On a pitch which Graham Gooch described as "normally the best for batting on in England," such a uniform attack will simply be asking for trouble.

In contrast to the uncertainty over their final line-up, Australia will field a side unchanged from the one which won so comfortably at Headingley. Continuity apart, they will also be bolstered - if only subconsciously - by the fact that the absence of any result will be sufficient to keep the Ashes Down Under for at least another two years.

Mark Taylor, mindful of his and his team's reputation for attacking cricket, is insistent that playing for a draw was never further from his mind, saying that he would "be very surprised if the last two matches are drawn". As it is almost three years since Australia drew a match not affected by the weather, there is a fair chance he will be right.

It is a view more or less shared by the England captain who, striving to overcome the disappointment of Gough's withdrawal, held one of his most upbeat press conferences of the series.

"It is true that as the series has gone on, their confidence has got higher, while ours has been dented," Atherton said. "But confidence is a short-lived and fragile thing and if we can seize the initiative on the first day those things can change quickly. If we can win here, I can see us being favourites to win the Ashes back, given our good record at The Oval."

They are bold words, especially when you consider that to win here now, England will not only have to overcome a formidable foe - something they have managed only three times in 17 Tests against Australia at Trent Bridge - but do it without their best bowler.

As Lord MacLaurin stated during the presentation of his blueprint on Tuesday: "The tougher the competition the better the game." As England pursue victory over the next five days, that assertion will surely be put to the test.

Sri Lanka Test record, page 20