Caught in back of beyond

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The Independent Online
One word kept cropping up in conversations that buzzed around the MCG at high noon yesterday. One word, that is, apart from abysmal, appalling and so on. The word was "back". Back to square one. Back in the old routine. Back to the dark ages. Back where they were when Gooch resigned.

Back to Port of Spain '94, Lord's '94, and everywhere but The Oval '93. Back when he should have been forward. And worst of all, back-to-back Tests.

Something, everybody was saying, must be done. But what? In two days' time, another Test begins. By the standards of modern Australian itineraries, this is not especially cruel. Even so, it should be banned under the Geneva Convention.

Somewhere in the middle of the lengthy, undignified scrum that passes for a post-match press conference, Ian McDonald, the Australian Cricket Board's media manager, shouted out the news that their XII for Sydney was the same as here. Nobody took much notice. Australia's selectors, like the West Indies', understand that if you want consistent performances, you need to make consistent selections.

England, for once, have a settled side, too, but for all the wrong reasons. If this were a home series, the papers would now be calling for heads to roll. And the selectors would see that they were right.

Gooch and Gatting would be put out to pasture. DeFreitas and Rhodes would be the subject of heated discussion.

As it is, it will be more or less as you were. Stewart's injury, and the bizarre decision to summon cover only for the least important of his roles, have left England with only six fit batsmen. It is as if Gary Sobers were injured and West Indies had sent for a slow left-armer. So Crawley will replace Stewart, and Rhodes will hang in there, although there are two things to be said for Russell - he is left-handed, and he has yet to face Warne in a Test. The only unforced change that is at all likely is Fraser for the toiling DeFreitas: after this result, it may occur to Illingworth that England are not so embarrassed with riches that they can afford to leave out one of the top 10 bowlers in the world ratings.

Both these changes will have an unpleasant side-effect: the fielding will get even worse. Ian Botham keeps saying that the selectors are too old and out of touch. It is a boring thing to say, but there has been no shortage of evidence for it. At 61, Ill i ngworth is only three years younger than the late Peter May, who took on the same job 13 years ago. If Illingworth has any idea how important fielding is out here, it did not show in the squad he picked.

Fletcher keeps saying that the players selected are the best in England. Not quite: as well as Fraser, England's top 16 must include Robin Smith, who has struggled recently but is never a push-over.

If England were playing at home, he would be the natural replacement for Stewart. Smith's Test average is 44 - two short of May, widely described this week as our best batsman of the last 50 years.