Public warming to hard-nosed England

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The Independent Online

Cricket Correspondent

It was easier to get through to a mobile phone on Mars than the Trent Bridge switchboard yesterday. England and the West Indies have so fired the public imagination, that next week's Nottingham Test match is sold out - for the first time in the famous old ground's history - for the first four days.

The clamour for tickets is less a reflection on the quality of the cricket being played - although half an hour of Brian Lara is almost worth the admission money by itself - as the intensity. This is not the formularised shadow boxing so redolent of the one-day game (where the mystery of cricketers wearing wrist watches is solved by the sight of all the slip fielders disappearing at 11.30), but a knuckleduster street fight.

There is also the uplifting element of watching England getting stuck in, rather than playing as though someone else's lives depended upon it. No other side gives itself quite as many chances to come from behind, but to manage it twice in the series is an indication of a new set of teeth. When England used to nail a "Beware of the Dog" sign on the gate, it did not fool anyone. On the other side of the front door, the opposition were smugly aware that Michael Ath-erton was busy giving the poodle a blow dry and manicure.

Atherton has consistently maintained that England's long run of failure has had less to do with ability than attitude. "I can't recall a game against Australia without coming in for a fair amount of personal abuse," he says, "but in terms of discipline and aggression, I'm a big believer in the way they play. I want to see it more from England."

This sentiment was echoed yesterday by his chairman, Raymond Illingworth, who said that not every player picked for England in recent times had been "good team men", and that the selectors were "gradually weeding them out". Illingworth, in a rare outbreak of verbal caution, declined to name names, but intimated that whoever they were, they could make 3,000 runs a year and take 300 wickets without getting chosen.

"If you have a really selfish person, it is hard to make him part of a team. He can be disruptive and upset the rest. I want players who are desperate to do well for their country, rather than worry about their own performances."

Illingworth has certainly had an influence on England's new hard-nosed approach, as not even Raymond or his greatest fan (which may be one and the same person) would ever accuse him of being soft-centred. When North- amptonshire were last in serious pursuit of the County Championship in the mid-Seventies, they played Leicestershire in a match ruined by rain, but which nonetheless offered them the chance of crucial bonus points in the final hour and a half on a rain-affected, uncovered pitch. Illingworth promptly denied them by declaring and following on.

No player epitomised this new competitive edge more than Jack Russell did on Sunday. It would be a mild surprise if Russell has not received a congratulatory telegram from Alec Stewart, and even more of a surprise if Stewart's wicketkeeping gloves have not since been ceremonially incinerated.

Stewart, as a batsman only, is the logical replacement for Robin Smith, who discharged himself from his Manchester hospital yesterday morning to seek further specialist advice in Southampton on his fractured cheekbone. Smith was due to be operated on in Manchester and it was doubtless his anxiety not to miss the final two Tests, with the winter tour to his native South Africa on the horizon, that sent him off in search of a second opinion.

Smith's injury was part bad luck, as the ball from Ian Bishop climbed into his face off the shoulder of the bat, and part bad planning, as he had worn a visor for the first time at Edgbaston, and mysteriously discarded it at Old Trafford. Now it is not so much a physical healing process as a mental one. There are better ways of regaining your confidence against fast bowling than facing Allan Donald in South Africa.

If Trent Bridge is dry, it will be interesting to see whether England stick with John Emburey, whose match figures of 0 for 82 were not entirely reflective of the way he bowled. His confidence remains high, but then again, it always has. When Navjot Sidhu hit him all over India three winters ago, Emburey said, "Take away the sixes, and I hardly conceded a run." Seventeen sixes takes a bit of ignoring.

Emburey's selection at nearly 43, along with Mike Watkinson (34) and Russell (32) is a fair indication that Illingworth has overruled Atherton's call for younger blood, as you might expect from someone who played for Yorkshire at 51. It is not too hard to imagine the silvery old fox opening the next selection debate with: "Now then Michael, I'm still pretty fit, tha' knows..."

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