Hick call-up reveals Atherton crisis (16 November 1998)

16 November 1998

Hick call-up reveals Atherton crisis

By Christopher Martin-Jenkins in Cairns

GRAEME HICK will join England's tour of Australia on Wednesday, two days before the first Test in Brisbane. He has been called up because of a recurrence of Michael Atherton's chronic back injury but Hick is unlikely to play until later in the series unless the current crisis worsens. He is being treated for the time being as a "reinforcement" rather than a direct replacement.

The decision was taken after the close of the third day of England's match against Queensland here by Graham Gooch, the manager, in consultation with Alec Stewart, the captain, David Lloyd, the coach, and David Graveney, the chairman of selectors.

Atherton's latest bout of back trouble started in Adelaide over a week ago. "I struggled to bend in the field and when I batted," he said, though he made 53 out of 80 at the start of England's second innings before being unluckily run out. That evening he was quietly taken to hospital for cortisone injections. "They usually manage to do the trick," he told me optimistically at the time, but on this occasion the relief proved temporary.

A scan carried out at the same time in Adelaide last Monday was also kept quiet so as not to alert Australians to the fact that the batsman they most respect is struggling again, but the secret could be kept no longer when he was unable to take the field yesterday.

The scan showed nothing new: merely a recurrence of the spondylitis which is threatening to end Atherton's career early. He played with apparent freedom in the one-day match at Lilac Hill with which the tour began but he missed the match against Western Australia with what Lloyd said was a bruised hip. Atherton himself described it as a strained thigh muscle and such confusion inevitably aroused suspicions about the real cause for concern. He would miss this series, however, only with the deepest reluctance. He is every bit as important to England's chances as Shane Warne is to Australia's.

During yesterday's play it became clear that a deep predicament was developing over who might open the England innings against Australia at the Gabba on Friday.

Mark Butcher will play despite managing only nine runs in five first-class innings, but Atherton has been in such trouble with his back that a replacement or a reserve ought to have been more seriously considered before. Hick's return to Australia, having been narrowly ruled out when only seven specialist batsmen were chosen, is ironic given that he withdrew from the tour here four years ago with back trouble of his own shortly after Atherton, then captain, had declared when Hick was 98 not out in the Sydney Test.

Butcher was out twice in eight balls over the weekend to continue a miserable sequence after being hit above the eye when he ducked into his second first-class ball of the tour against Western Australia two weeks ago, but at least he is fit. As Atherton was off the field all of yesterday he was forced by the tour regulations to postpone his second innings until five wickets had fallen. In the event Dean Headley came in as nightwatchman, delaying Atherton's reappearance until this morning.

Problems at the top of the order are what England did not want before the two Tests within a fortnight which could decide the Ashes. The gamble taken by the selectors when they failed to pick a third specialist opener is now being painfully exposed. It is all very well to say that in the age of swift air travel a player can be whisked from one side of the world to the other within 24 hours but it takes a week for anyone to become fully acclimatised and free of jet lag.

If Atherton does not recover for Friday, John Crawley, narrowly preferred to Hick when the tour selection was made following the Oval Test in which they both scored centuries against Sri Lanka, will take over as Butcher's partner. Crawley scored four of his seven hundreds for Lancashire last season as an opener and opening at Test level might be the making of him. The presence of Nick Knight or Steve James on the tour in the first place, however, instead of a second off-spinner or a second all-rounder, might have made greater strategic sense.

Sending for a replacement before the series has started gives an all-too-familiar signal to Australia of yet another England touring side starting to buckle under pressure. Nevertheless, getting someone out here to acclimatise just in case is surely the lesser of two evils.

The alternative to opening with Crawley if Atherton does not recover is for Stewart himself to go in first with Butcher, his Surrey colleague and brother-in-law. In that event a first Test cap for Warren Hegg is possible, but he will also be suffering from jet-lag, having been allowed to return home to Manchester where his wife gave birth to their first child, a daughter, on Friday. He does not arrive back in Australia until tomorrow morning.

The Crawley option is therefore much more likely, with Hick, if he is summoned, held in reserve to play in the second Test in Perth if he is needed, or, more likely, the third in Adelaide, by which time he would have had the chance of a warm-up match against Victoria in Melbourne, starting on Dec 5. Clearly the other batsmen's form, as well as the condition of Atherton's back, will decide.


Test agony for Atherton and England

By Peter Deeley

ENGLAND'S build-up to the First Test of the Ashes series - which begins on Friday - was thrown into crisis last night with the news that Michael Atherton had suffered a recurrence of his back injury.

Graeme Hick is flying out to Australia today as a batting replacement for the former England captain, who is said to be in agony from a return of the spondylitis that has dogged his career.

The problem first came to light during a specialist's scan in Adelaide a week ago, but the England management chose not to make the news public to avoid alerting the opposition to a potential problem with one of England's leading players. As a result, Hick will not reach Brisbane until Wednesday, with hardly enough time to acclimatise to the heat and humidity.

Atherton, 30, has been playing in the team's final warm-up match, against Queensland in Cairns, but sources said he was in considerable pain. The opening batsman, who has suffered from back problems for most of his career, said: "I struggled to bend in the field and when I batted."

Observers of Atherton's condition fear that he could be ruled out for the whole series. But David Graveney, the England manager, said: "There is no suggestion at this stage that he will be forced out of the tour from the injury, although we will continue to monitor the situation closely."

Source :: Electronic Telegraph (http://www.telegraph.co.uk)