Cricket: The case for opening with Atherton

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The Independent Online
AT LAST, after the confusion and dithering of the Texaco matches, the real plotting begins. Somewhere within the confines of Lord's this evening, David Graveney and his selectors, including the new Test captain Alec Stewart, will sit down and pick England's team for the first Test at Edgbaston next Thursday.

It will, in all likelihood, not be a protracted meeting, as all but three places really pick themselves. But it will be an important one, especially against a tenacious and combative side like South Africa, whose own attention to detail has helped them deliver success to the sports hungry back home.

To the layman, filling just three places from the team that toured the Caribbean a few months ago, would probably suggest a sign of strength. Normally, this would be true, but as two of the positions are opening bat and bowler - the other being an all-rounder at No 7 - the team's foundations, and not just its brickwork, are at risk.

Finding a partner for Michael Atherton, now seemingly back on route to his cussed best, is perhaps the most ironic of the decisions the panel will have to make. Two months ago in the West Indies, despite Atherton's poor form, the choice was an easy one.

Unencumbered by either captaincy or the keeper's gloves, Alec Stewart, until Philo Wallace and Clayton Lambert stole some of his thunder, was the opener of the series. Since then, Stewart's role has burgeoned to incorporate both of the above, while forsaking the one for which he has a proven Test record. He will now bat at three or four, with Nasser Hussain occupying whichever of the two remains vacant.

Of the main candidates to face the new ball only two, Nick Knight and Mark Butcher, have already played Test cricket. The others, Darren Maddy and Steve James, heavy scorers in last season's Championship, however, both toured Kenya and Sri Lanka with England A during the winter.

They all have a case, though the groundswell behind Maddy, a surprise selection for the one-dayers, perhaps makes him favourite, with the left- handers Butcher and Knight running him a close second. Now 30, James is probably just the wrong side of the watershed to begin a Test career.

A hard worker, Maddy scored heavily on that A tour, managed and coached by Graham Gooch and Mike Gatting respectively. Less natural than the others, Maddy is technically sound, something the dashing Knight has problems with - his back foot has a tendency to go back but not across.

Indeed, only the prospect of blooding a newcomer upon what is normally a result pitch, will cause concern for the panel. In which case Butcher, the more compact of the left-handers, may well find himself back at the head of the order.

Filling the all-rounder's role has been a perennial problem since the departure of a certain you know who. At Edgbaston, the onus will be on seam, which provides a straight choice between Mark Ealham, the Hollioakes, Dominic Cork and Craig White.

Hollioake junior would be the choice of the bold, but England's selectors, like their charges, are rarely bold until a deficit accrues. Likewise, they may feel the choice of Cork, whose rehabilitation, after two years of injury and domestic problems, is not yet complete.

Hollioake senior will certainly take up a portion of the discussions, but this is likely to concern his merits as one-day captain rather than his suitability to be England's pivot. However, an announcement, is not expected until later in the summer, by which time Ealham may have cemented the place he will surely be given in front of White.

Finally, providing Angus Fraser is happy bowling at first change, the selectors have to pair a new ball bowler with Darren Gough, now thankfully back to his bustling best.

Before shin splints reduced him to one day's cricket in the last fortnight, Gough's most likely partner would have the man he shares the new ball with for Yorkshire, Chris Silverwood. Now the contest looks to be between Dean Headley, Andy Caddick and the re-instated Ed Giddins, taking wickets for his new county Warwickshire.

Under David Graveney's chairmanship, all players have been given a clean slate, and Giddin's 18-month ban, after testing positive for cocaine, will not be held against him. Nevertheless, Headley, who had an erratic tour of the Caribbean, will probably prevail, something not likely to be extended to Andy Caddick, the most disappointing of England's bowlers on tour.

Only one spinner will be included, though another will be drafted in should the pitch look as if it will respond to spin (unlikely). When Atherton was captain, Phil Tufnell was the spinner of choice, a position he is almost certain to relinquish to the off-spinner Robert Croft, whose drift clearly troubled the South Africans during the one-dayers.

Ian Salisbury, having spent a winter in Sydney with Shane Warne's spin doctors, is another getting some good press. But while it is true that South Africa struggle against high quality wrist spin, Salisbury is no Warne. In other words, until the selectors have irrefutable proof of his newly acquired miserliness, they are unlikely to pit him against a side who begrudge their opponents every single run.

POSSIBLE ENGLAND XII: Atherton, Knight, Stewart, Hussain, Thorpe, Ramprakash, Ealham, Croft, Gough, Headley, Fraser, Giddins.