SPORT

England hopeful of stopping Australia

MELBOURNE Dec. 25. England's veteran wicketkeeper Alec Stewart has shrugged off the hand injury that threatened to keep him out of the fourth Test against Australia on Thursday, Brett Lee has played down the threat to his career contained in television pictures of him letting go of his fastest ball with a jerk and Steve Waugh has reacted angrily to further questions about his future.

Just another controversial Ashes Test then as Australia gears up for its first five-nil win since 1920-1 and as England issues hopeful noises about winning the last two matches of the series and going home with its head held high.

It is a platform Stewart will enjoy. He has not been at his best in this series and, apart from his galloping innings at Brisbane, he has been out of sorts in the one-day series as well; but his regular achievements in the milestones department has demonstrated just what a great player we have failed to appreciate in the last 12 years.

Better late than never

Stewart came late to Test cricket mainly because his father Mickey was the England coach and unwilling to be the first to push his son.

He was in and out of the side for a while, he had a poor tour of India and although he led the side for the first time in Sri Lanka that spell of leadership did nothing for his reputation.

Whenever there was a change in the batting order Stewart was the one to be moved even though he made hundreds as an opener in both innings as England defeated the West Indies in Barbados in 1995, a result it had not achieved since 1935.

Ray Illingworth, the chairman of selectors, insisted Stewart could open the innings and keep wicket; which brought him a blinding catch to dismiss Brian Lara and pave the way to a famous victory at Lord's in 1995.

Soon Stewart was being devalued again. He kept Jack Russell out of the Test side and had to become accustomed to critics rating Russell a finer keeper; he was marked below Mike Atherton as an opener, never quite accepted as a middle order batsman; too slow, so it was said, to be a fielder.

Yet when we look at his record today it is with the sort of admiration we used to give to Ian Botham.

He is now the fourth highest England batsman — behind Graham Gooch, David Gower and Geoff Boycott — with 8078 runs, has played in 125 Tests, which makes him the sixth in that table, and one more than Sunil Gavaskar; and only Alan Knott has more runs (4389) as an England wicketkeeper.

With 37 more runs he will pass Boycott and 235 he will overtake Gower. He has 219 dismissals in 21 fewer Tests than Knott who claimed 269 victims.

It is a remarkable feat of endurance if nothing else. Often his keeping has been immaculate, although less so recently, and his batting can be devastating, although now he is more likely to score fifty when others fail than make a match-winning century.

He is still the smartest cricketer on either side, a constant encouragement to the under-performing bowler and an intelligent reader of the game, as anyone with 23 years experience should be.

We miss his contribution to England's history at our peril but I fear we are seeing his swansong.

So too with Waugh and in the last two days he seems to have realised his days as Australian captain are gone. He even criticised the selectors for guaranteeing him a place in the last two Tests.

"I never asked for a guarantee and never wanted one,'' he says. "You pick your 11 best players. If I am not one of that 11 that's fair enough.''

Lee, caught bowling at 156.2 kilometres an hour with an action that verged on the outrageous during the Perth one-day game against Sri Lanka, believes he has no problem unless an umpire calls him.

Martin Love will replace Darren Lehmann who is still in hospital with an infection in his right leg.

Stewart has played in a record 52 England defeats and there is no reason to believe he will not play in Nos. 53 and 54 in the next two weeks.

The teams:

Australia: Steve Waugh (captain), Matthew Hayden, Justin Langer, Ricky Ponting, Damien Martyn, Darren Lehmann or Martin Love, Adam Gilchrist, Stuart MacGill, Brett Lee, Jason Gillespie, Glenn McGrath.

England (from): Nasser Hussain (captain), Marcus Trescothick, Michael Vaughan, Mark Butcher, Robert Key, John Crawley, Alec Stewart, Craig White, Richard Dawson, Steve Harmison, Andrew Caddick, Matthew Hoggard.

Umpires: Dave Orchard (South Africa) and Russell Tiffin (Zimbabwe). TV umpire: Darrell Hair.

Match referee: Wasim Raja (Pakistan).