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English hat-trick hopes threatened by Muralitharan

Christopher Martin-Jenkins

27 August 1998

WITH a genuine injury scare, a high-profile young all-rounder turning up late for practice and a pitch changing colour by the minute, the Oval was certainly living up to its reputation for dramatic incidents yesterday, and the match had not even started, writes Christopher Martin-Jenkins.

When their one-off match against Sri Lanka does begin this morning there can be no certainty that England will confirm their marginally higher position in the Test ratings, for all their rousing finish to the series against South Africa.

The one certainty last night was that Nasser Hussain will miss the match because of a groin injury which can only be cured by rest. His place goes to John Crawley, who bats at six, with Graeme Hick promoted to three, but there is doubt whether Mike Atherton will be fit - Steve James stands by in case - and whether Ben Hollioake, Robert Croft or even Dominic Cork will carry out the drinks.

Sri Lanka's leading fast bowler, Chaminda Vaas, has been ruled out and they will make a final choice at No 7 between Chandika Hathurusinghe, who has opened with success in Test cricket and bowls some medium pace, and Kumara Dharmasena, whose off-spin has earned him 50 wickets in 19 Tests.

The key to both selections, of course, will be the look of the pitch this morning. The scenes yesterday offered a nice contrast to those on the day before the last two games of the series against South Africa. Far from protecting the pitch against the sun, which might have made it too dry - as at Trent Bridge and Headingley - Paul Brind's concern seemed to be to uncover it at every opportunity except when it was actually raining.

This was significant because the Test strip here has turned a lot in the last two years. Mushtaq Ahmed bowled Pakistan to victory here in 1996 and Phil Tufnell took 11 wickets in the three-day defeat of Australia last year. The weather this weekend, as then, is expected to be sunny. The Sri Lankan strength rests primarily in their batting and in the freakish ability of their off-spinner, Muttiah Muralitharan; England rely in the field on the seam and swing bowling of Darren Gough, Angus Fraser and Dominic Cork.

They could take some cheer from the fact that after a night under the tarpaulins and on a grey, damp day the pitch had developed a few green tinges to its brown surface. It will turn for Muralitharan and the home-pitch wrist spinner, Ian Salisbury, especially at the Vauxhall End, but equally it might not be too unfriendly to the faster bowlers.

The logical course is for England to play all five of the specialist bowlers gathered since Robert Croft was summoned on Monday to take the place of the rather unfortunate Alan Mullally. Leaving aside his failure to make practice on time yesterday, that would be a shame for Ben Hollioake, whose recent bowling performances mean that he has taken his 25 wickets this season at an impressive average of 22 runs each, with a wicket every 43 balls.

The more Test experience Hollioake can have if he is to go to Australia the better. But a seven, eight, nine of Cork, Croft and Salisbury against one of the more innocuous Test attacks ought to be sufficient in support of England's reshaped top six. For all that, I expect Hollioake to play and Croft to be one of two disappointed Welshmen.

James was left out after a first innings of 10 and a second-innings duck against South Africa at Lord's in June. He is averaging 53 this season, but though he has been preferred as Atherton's reserve to Darren Maddy of Leicestershire, who outscored him on the A tour of Sri Lanka last winter, it might have something to do with the fact that Glamorgan have no game.

James would need to play and to do well in this game if he is to get one of what will probably be only seven batting places on the tour to Australia. That team, to be chosen on Monday night when this match ends, provides an intriguing sub-plot. Hick and Crawley need to reinforce their cases and Salisbury's chances of staying ahead of Tufnell, Croft and Ashley Giles depend entirely on him making a dramatic improvement in this game on horrible Test figures of 18 wickets at 70.

When England won three Tests in succession last year, the last two against New Zealand and the first against Australia, it looked as though dawn had finally broken for the national team. Not since 1981, however, have three home Tests been won in a row and if Alec Stewart, comfirmed as captain until next June at least, can pull another game out of the hat, the 17 chosen for Australia next week will take to the plane with a spring in their step.

There are a few tickets left for today but none for tomorrow and Saturday. Sri Lanka may be duly flattered, but it is no less than they deserve. With Muralitharan as a potential match-winner should they bat first and make a big score, and 35 Test hundreds between them, 16 by the brilliant Aravinda de Silva, they are far now from being the game's poor relations.

They beat England in a one-day tournament only on Sunday, they are led by the longest-serving of all the Test captains in Arjuna Ranatunga, they have in Sanath Jayasuriya a dasher who has nevertheless scored 340 in a single Test innings and in Marvan Atapattu and Mahela Jayawardene they have batsmen ready to fill the shoes of de Silva and Ranatunga when finally they stop travelling. For all that, England are expecting to win.

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Date-stamped : 27 Aug1998 - 10:27