Hick not amused by Atherton's decision

THIRd test: Despite their commanding position, controversy surrounds th e timing of the England captain's declaration

England 309 & 255-2 dec Australia 116 & 139-0

Before the start of this Test match, the odds on Michael Atherton employing the words "I declare" before the end of it very much depended on what they were prefixing. "I declare . . . a) "that I have had quite enough of this lot and here's my resignation" - 10-1; b) "this department store officially open" - 100-1; and c) "the England innings closed" - 1,000-1.

Yesterday, however, the 1,000-1 shot duly came in, and was closely followed (or at least, it is a reasonable assumption) by Graeme Hick muttering: "I declare that you, Mr Atherton, are not a very nice man, and I now intend to sulk at second slip for the rest of the day."

It is hard to say whether Atherton or Hick looked the more glum at close of play yesterday. Atherton, having set Australia 449 runs to win in a minimum of 128 overs, saw Mark Taylor and Michael Slater reduce that to a final-day equation of 310 from 90 overs with all 10 wickets in hand, while Hick was still brooding over his captain calling him off the field when he was on 98 not out.

There are only two logical theories, given the chain of events leading up to the declaration. Either England had made a cock-up of interpreting the regulations, or else Atherton had taken umbrage at Hick's apparent priorities - first Ashes century, or winning the match? It was a little bit easier to suspect the latter.

England, leading by 283 at the start of play, had decided to set Australia 450 by 3pm, thereby allowing their bowlers two bursts with the new ball either side of the scheduled 3.40 tea-break. Had they gone on until 3.10, tea would have been taken early, leaving a more draining two and a half hour final session.

By 2.57 on the scoreboard clock, England were still three minutes and one run short of their stated target, but then Atherton appeared on the dressing-room balcony and waved Hick and his batting partner, Graham Thorpe, off the field.

The assumption was that Atherton had not taken kindly to Hick having played defensively at the final three balls of a Damien Fleming over, but Hick looked genuinely bemused.

The body language between Hick and Atherton during the final passage of play did not suggest undying affection, neither was a great deal of dialogue involved. However, Hick declined to be interviewed afterwards, Atherton was not available, and it was left to Keith Fletcher, the team manager, to shed some light on the subject.

Not surprisingly, all Fletcher shed was a little more murk. "We had agreed on three o'clock and a target of 450," he said. "But it was 2.57, and 449," someone pointed out. "It was down to Mike, and in the context of the match, it was the right decision,"Fletcher said. "What did Hick say to Atherton?" "I'm not saying," Fletcher replied. "Is it fair to say Hick wasn't too pleased?" "You can write what you want," Fletcher said.

Fletcher also claimed that there was no confusion about being able to bat on until 3.09 without the tea interval being taken immediately after declaring, despite confirming that the third umpire had initially thought that 3.00pm was the deadline.

"We checked, and discovered the umpire was wrong," Fletcher said, adding: "Graeme knew the declaration was coming roughly when it did." However, Fletcher also confirmed that Atherton had not relayed a message to Hick confirming that he intended to declare at the end of Fleming's over.

In the context of the game, Atherton was absolutely right in not worrying whether Hick was on 98, 99, or 100 before declaring. Hick, after all, had made only 36 runs in the hour and 20 minutes preceding the declaration (10 of them in two consecutive blows off Craig McDermott), but it was still one of England's better efforts to end a day which began with so much promise in an atmosphere of personal ill-feeling and nagging doubts about their ability to go on and win.

Atherton's major concern, particularly as the sun had finally emerged to suck out enough moisture from the pitch to provide the best batting conditions of the match, was in leaving himself enough time to bowl out the opposition. However, Taylor and Slater batted as though 449 to win (43 runs more than has ever been scored to win a Test match batting last) in four and a bit sessions was the sort of target they could knock off with their eyes closed.

After seven overs against Malcolm and Gough, Taylor had made 27 in a total of 38 for 0, and by the time he had made 27 in the first innings, Australia were rather less handily placed at 65 for eight. The Australian openers launched into anything loose, but it was the way they stole singles from the more elderly and unathletic fielders (and let's face it, they were spoilt for choice) that really began to gnaw away at England's self-belief.

Any sympathy for Hick should be balanced by the fact that he was more like 98 for three than 98 not out by the time the declaration came. Badly dropped on eight the previous day, he had made 33 when Australia went up for such a concerted caught-behind a p peal off Warne, that even the taciturn Taylor (who disallowed his own side's appeal for a catch against Atherton in Melbourne) shook his head in disbelief at the not-out decision.

when Hick was on 54, he chopped a ball from Tim May so hard into his leg stump that the Australians looked incredulous when neither bail left its groove. Hick was on 92 when the drinks break came (along with a dressing-room message) but made only six more in the next, and final, three overs.

Atherton's nickname of "Iron Mike" might have begun as an ironic soubriquet, but he has subsequently shown a not inconsiderable amount of hard mineral content in his veins, and his own dismissal - after a partnership of 105 with Hick - was his 13th scoreof over 50 in 16 Tests as captain.

His batting average as captain is also over 50, and in this series his stickability at the crease is such that he has seen 15 batsmen dismissed at the other end during his six innings.

neither does he seem over-concerned about winning popularity polls, as Hick ruefully discovered yesterday.

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