England take up the fight with gloves off

Martin Johnson reports from Perth on a new-found aggression instilled b y newly fined Atherton
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The Independent Online
It is a touch too soon to say that the tide has turned, but the worm certainly has. Quite apart from the one-sided nature of the results in recent years, there has been such a noticeable disparity in aggression that Australians have wondered why t here are three lions on the England crest rather than three poodles - but there has only been one team sailing close to (and indeed beyond) the bounds of etiquette in this series, and they are not Australia.

When England began losing to Australia eight years ago, it was directly connected to Allan Border shedding his Mr Nice Guy image, and presiding over a team who, had the international code of conduct been in place, would have forked out so much money in fines they would have ended up playing the mouth organ in Tube-station underpasses between Test matches in order to make ends meet.

Since then, however, Australia's new captain, Mark Taylor, has publicly renounced sledging, and plays his cricket in a way that almost harks back to the days of Gentlemen versus Players. Even Ian Healy, who was brought up in the John McEnroe school of charm, and whose criterion for an appeal for a catch used to be if the ball came within two feet of the outside edge, has become a more chivalrous opponent.

However, after three consecutive Ashes series being thrashed by better, and more to the point, nastier opposition, England have clearly decided it is time that the Baron de Coubertin principle of it being better to take part than to win can go and take arunning jump.

John Reid, the New Zealander appointed to referee this series, lost patience with Michael Atherton in the Adelaide Test match after warning him no fewer than four times in the series for infringing the "spirit of the game" by not only deliberately slowing down the over-rate, but also for failing to control his players' behavioural excesses.

The most noticeable has been from Steven Rhodes, who is the most gratuitous appealer England have had for many years, and when Chris Lewis decided to point Craig McDermott towards the dressing-room on Monday, Reid correctly deduced that Lewis had every reason to believe that McDermott already knew the way.

What should be acknowledged straight away is that England's new-found aggression is badly needed. Properly channelled, it is a crucial part of modern-day Test cricket. As Border said to Robin Smith when he refused Smith's request for a glass of water during the 1989 series, "What d'yer think this is, mate? An effing tea party?"

David Gower and Graham Gooch are essentially undemonstrative characters, and in Michael Atherton, England have found the right man for underwriting a new hard-nosed era. Almost certainly, however, the Test and County Cricket Board has found him by accident. When Gooch resigned, Alec Stewart was perceived as the harder nut, and Atherton as the studious, Oxbridge type. In fact, Atherton is an earthy grammar-school boy, who prefers a pint to a dry martini, and is as stubborn a character as they come.

He is also not above gamesmanship, which is why he has not only manipulated over-rates when Australia's batsmen have got on top, but also why he breached etiquette by stealing a run in the Sydney Test after the ball had rebounded off his body. It was calculated to upset the Australians, and he and John Crawley took advantage of the opposition's lost concentration to produce a partnership of 174 from 20 for 3.

England, in fact, were fortunate to get away with being fined only 15 per cent of their match fee for poor over-rates in Adelaide. This represented only three overs, whereas in fact they were 13 overs in the red. They got away with it because of allowances made for wickets and drinks intervals, a flawed system which needs re-examination.

It is also doubtful whether England's claim that they were going hell for leather for victory on the final morning in Adelaide entirely holds water. Keith Fletcher, the team manager, had earlier spoken about playing for "an honourable draw" and Phillip DeFreitas had, in fact, been told to be "selective" about his hitting on the final morning. Happily, DeFreitas took selective to mean trying to whack the odd ball for four instead of belting every one for six.

What was so uplifting about Adelaide, quite apart from breathing new life into the final Test starting here on Friday, was that the Australians have suddenly begun finding excuses. They are now, apparently, "tired" after a long spell of international cricket, and Shane Warne's old shoulder injury is being cited as the reason for his lack of snap. After two Test matches, Warne's series figures read: 112.2-43-190-20. For the next two Tests they read:113.3-30-290-5.

Other than Warne and McDermott, Australia scarcely have a decent bowler, which is another way of examining this so-called panacea of the Cricket Academy. Where Australia do have it over England, however, is in their refusal to take the negative option, which is partly fuelled by the realisation over here that Test cricket needs to be entertaining in order to survive.

It is hard to imagine England, 2-0 up with two to play, launching themselves at a last-day target in quite the kamikaze way that Australia approached it, although England deserve great credit for kicking the door off the hinges rather than their usual method of hoping that the opposition will leave it unlocked.

Devon Malcolm's fired-up mood was well illustrated by the way he hurtled off the field when he was the last batsman out on Monday morning, and it was remarkable to see how the camaraderie improved when things went England's way. When Philip Tufnell was examining an injured foot on Saturday, Atherton never went near him. When Tufnell took a fine catch in the outfield on Monday, Atherton ran 50 yards to embrace him.

If you had to feel sorry for anyone, it was Joey Benjamin, gazumped by Chris Lewis for a place in the side, and well though Lewis performed for a player short of match practice, it must have been a little galling for Benjamin to have been preferred in the original party, yet forced to miss out on a rare England triumph in Australia.

The kind of team spirit a result like this one engenders means that Lewis will undoubtedly keep his place for the final Test, and the only likely change is if Atherton decides he can do without a specialist spinner on Perth's hard, fast pitch. Mark Ramprakash gives him the option of six batsmen, but Ramprakash himself said yesterday that, having been summoned from a month of playing on India's low, slow pitches, to shove him in on Perth's comparative trampoline would be something of a risk.