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Relaxed England tune in to swing

Christopher Martin-Jenkins.

Wednesday 4 June 1997


IT could all change by lunchtime tomorrow, but the vibes from Edgbaston yesterday were familiar: one side defensive, fed up with media harassment, tense; the other relaxed, confident and happy to talk about the impending battle. The difference, of course, is that the team under pressure from recent failures is Australia.

England made the opening move in preparation for the first Test, starting here tomorrow, by announcing, to no one's great surprise, that Phil Tufnell was the unlucky 13th man. He was told after the afternoon practice that he was free to play for Middlesex against Leicestershire at Lord's today.

The forecast for thundery showers during the match had as much effect on the decision to play four seam and swing bowlers and only one spinner, Robert Croft, as the look of the pitch. England hope that the ball will swing, which makes it more likely that Mark Ealham will bat at No 7 than Adam Hollioake, impressively though the Surrey captain batted in the nets against an assortment of fast bowlers and leg-spinners.

The pitch was covered yesterday. Having last been watered eight days ago, the only concern of the groundsman, Steve Rouse, is that it might dry out to the extent that cracks would create the sort of uneven bounce which played into the hands of the West Indian fast bowlers two years ago.

Warwickshire were warned in writing by the Test and County Cricket Board last year that they would lose their Test if they could not produce a surface more reliable than the neighbouring pitches on which their last two Tests ended at lunchtime on the third and fourth days.

England's strategists have made it clear that they were hoping for a slow seamer. It may not be far away from that: it is firm, evenly grassed, likely to be easy-paced and more even in bounce than its notorious predecessors.

Australia's probable 11 is not their strongest possible combination - without Michael Slater it cannot be - but it has more or less picked itself. Greg Blewett will bat at three after captain Mark Taylor and Matthew Elliott and the attack will be the same as the one mastered by England, for what that was worth in a Test context, in the one-day Texaco Trophy internationals: McGrath, Kasprowicz, Gillespie, Warne and Bevan.

Their practice in the morning took place within the stiff wire netting which surrounds the Edgbaston nets after the Australian coach, Geoff Marsh, politely but firmly refused entry to anyone carrying a camera or notebook. Partly because of the cruel obsession with Taylor's struggles as a batsman, partly because his side have lost five of their last six matches on this tour, the Australians are like amoeba under a microscope at the moment and they are finding the experience no more comfortable than their English counterparts have at various stages of many a recent tour.

As Mike Atherton recovered his form in New Zealand, so might Taylor find his; but it looks less likely. As a team, however, Australia are, of course, quite capable of recovering from their defeat by Derbyshire exactly as the West Indies did from a much more thorough defeat by Sussex two years ago, namely by moving to Birmingham and winning.

For the moment it is England who have the momentum and although Andy Caddick, Darren Gough and Ealham all had only a gentle bowl after plenty of work in their county matches, the rest had purposeful nets, none more so than Devon Malcolm, about whom coach David Lloyd was bullish. ``People ask me what happens if Devon has one of his off days,'' he said: ``I ask them what happens if he has one of his good ones.''

Among the bowlers Lloyd called in to help were the former Pakistani leg-spinner Iqbal Sikander, now playing for Tonge in the Bolton Association with an action exactly like the great Abdul Qadir's. The young Lancastrian wrist-spinner, Chris Schofield, also bowled tidily, without quite being Shane Warne. Dayne Maynard, the Barbados paceman who bowls with a toothpick in his mouth, was neither so accurate nor menacing as Glenn McGrath, but the England batsmen had a fierce enough test from Malcolm and his young pretender, Alex Tudor, whose promise is absolutely genuine.


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