Time for a Lord's cure

Andrew Longmore says a gloomy record at headquarters can at last be broken
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The Independent Online
Elvis and the Rastafarians will doubtless be turned away from the Grace Gates for the Second Test starting on Thursday, but if at least some of the gaiety of Edgbaston can be transported down the motorway, Lord's might not be the forbidding place England's cricketers have found it for much of the past century. At the risk of sounding curmudgeonly in the midst of understandable national rejoicing, many of England's worst performances have been set before the egg-and- bacon brigade in St John's Wood.

It is a thought worth bearing in mind as the bookmakers, with a selective nod to history, have made England favourites to regain the Ashes with 25 of the 30 days of the series still to be played. None of the last six Ashes series has been won from behind. But then again England have beaten Australia only once at Lord's this century, in 1934, when Maurice Leyland and Les Ames scored centuries and Hedley Verity took 15 wickets.

I will get the gloom out of the way at once, if you like. The last time the Australians came to Lord's, they made 632 for 4 - Taylor, Slater and Boon made centuries - and won by an innings and 62 runs. Oh, and Warne took eight wickets. There, that's it.

On the eve of his record-breaking 42nd Test as captain, no one will need to remind Mike Atherton OBE of the fickle nature of sporting success. Three years ago, a public beheading would have been the only reason for a visit to the Palace, the one decent end for a convicted ball-tamperer. The bell was tolling; now a gong beckons. A knighthood must surely follow if the Ashes are regained.

Four years is a long time in cricket and England lost the first Test of that 1993 series, ensuring that confidence was low at the point of most pressure. This time, they arrive buoyed by a barnstorming victory and comforted by the knowledge that most of the significant individual battles in the First Test - Gough v Mark Waugh, Hussain and Thorpe v Warne, almost everyone v McGrath - went their way. Whatever else happens in this series, Australia have forfeited their invincibility.

For once, the England selectors had a relatively simple task in picking their squad to be announced this morning. Phil Tufnell will be added to the 12 from Edgbaston, though he is likely to miss out again. Dean Headley and Mike Smith, a briskish medium left-arm swing bowler from Gloucestershire, will have to wait their turn. Victory buys newcomers such as Mark Butcher precious time to settle.

The one concern for Michael Atherton will stem from Australia's domination through the third afternoon at Edgbaston. Taylor was beginning to rediscover his form, though not convincingly enough to drive off the front foot, and first Matt Elliott, then, more emphatically, Greg Blewett exploited the aggressive tendency of the England attack. Devon Malcolm was England's most economical bowler. "Here, Dev, tie up an end for an hour or so" is not a battlecry to inspire confidence in the captain.

Australia like to rattle along. Even in adversity, they averaged three and a half runs an over. Slow their progress and the wickets will follow, as Robert Croft, who tied up Taylor midway through the final morning before removing both the Australian captain and Blewett, proved so ably. Croft has often been forced to do a defensive job for Glamorgan, but he is essentially an attacking off-spinner who will bowl better when there is danger in the air.

In the absence of a born brakeman like Angus Fraser, a man of mean persuasion who hated conceding runs almost as much as he enjoyed taking wickets, Andrew Caddick or Mark Ealham will need to take on the containing role. The alternative, like the Charge of the Light Brigade, could be glorious, bloody and ultimately vain.

Traditionally, Lord's is not an easy pitch on which to score quickly. It is on the slow side and subject to uneven bounce, and a little turn, later in the match. Gambling captains will put the opposition in, if the weather is overcast and the surface a little green, in the hope of in effect settling the match by tea on the first day. But as the pitch will only deteriorate after the first morning, batting first is the safer, and smarter, option. If Edgbaston was a good toss to lose, this would be a good one to win. Either way, any edicts put out about preparation of pitches will be quietly ignored at Lord's, where they do things their own way.

After nearly a month of their tour, the Australians must be wondering what has hit them. Other than putting "wanted" posters up in every town on their route, the locals could hardly have made the touring team feel more hunted. The brooding menace of the West Indies, the amiable confidence of Australia. Every touring team has to combat a sense of the country by forging its own spirit. But the Australians have found themselves on the wrong end of a national crusade and an unfair equation which has 55 million Brits feeling better because 17 Aussies feel crook.

Senior players such as Steve Waugh, who have plundered rich harvests here on previous tours, have been genuinely surprised by the vehemence of the support for the England team. To add to their woes, the traditional enemy deprived them of a day's cricket at Trent Bridge last week at just the moment they needed every minute.

When their bowlers resort to using yellow cones to denote line and length, as they did at a deserted Edgbaston on the unused fifth day, it does not need a tour record of played 10, won 2, lost 6, to show that all is not well with the self-styled world champions.

The arrival of Paul Reiffel has rectified a fundamental mistake in selection and it would be a big surprise if the Victorian swing bowler is not included at Lord's where, 25 years ago, Bob Massie took 16 wickets. But the momentum is with Team England. For once, it is the Australians who are all shook up.