Charge of the young brigade

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WIN, lose or draw, the Perth Test signifies the end of an era for English cricket. Irrespective of the outcome, England prepare to face the future without Graham Gooch, their greatest run-scorer, who retires from Test cricket at the end of the match. For more than a decade, Gooch has been a pillar of granite in a batting order inclined to crumble, particularly against the West Indies, who tour England this summer. Their presence should be enough to persuade that other senior citizen, Mike Gatting - who has never mastered their relentless pace - to call it a day, too, despite the rejuvenating effects of a hard-won century last week.

Though they will be missed, their passing should not be mourned. Cricket has become a young man's game. Its punishing itineraries and robust standards of fielding now require regular transfusions of new blood, a fact long recognised by Australia and the West Indies, two sides who ruthlessly dispose of ageing players in favour of unproven youth in their search for long-term consistency.

Blooding young talent has never come naturally to England's selectors, whose distrust of youth has been severely criticised on this tour. On the few past occasions the selectors have been bold, talented newcomers have rarely been allowed long enough to establish themselves.

At 21, Gooch himself was given an early chance, making a pair on his Test debut against the 1975 Australians at Edgbaston. After only one more Test, he was dropped. Fortunately for England, he resurfaced three years later, the selectors believing the extra stint at county level had made him a better player.

Mark Ramprakash, the latest in a long line of replacements sent for by England on this tour, has had an even rougher ride. Since his international debut in 1991, England's selectors have picked and then discarded him with the alacrity of Billy Bunter choosing the orange cremes in a box of chocolates.

Unsurprisingly, his frustration has been tangible, and on more than one occasion his misdirected anger on the field has resulted in disciplinary action by Middlesex. "You've got to try to keep picking yourself up all the time," Ramprakash said. "It isn'talways easy, especially when there is so little communication between selectors and players. Everyone wants to know where they stand, young or old."

A case in point is the present bewilderment of Dominic Cork. As an official stand-by for the Ashes tour with the likes of Angus Fraser and Jack Russell, Cork should have been called up once Craig White's rib injury ended the Yorkshire player's tour. Instead, Cork continues in India with the A team, while Chris Lewis, thought to be heading for oblivion, gets another chance to re-establish himself at Test level.

Ramprakash admits to feeling deflated. "When I was 18, I was very confident and reputations counted for nothing. This has been knocked out of me, which is a very English thing. When I've played abroad in Australia, West Indies and India, their players have always been full of confidence. In England you have to be good but modest as well. It seems to hold us back."

He also believes that our young players are being brought up in an environment that isn't hard enough. "When I played Grade cricket for North Melbourne in 1989, a batsman would get one opportunity to bat every two weeks, so there was real pressure on himto make the most of that chance when a good pitch came along. In England, I sometimes went out and just played shots safe in the knowledge that there was another innings just round the corner."

Ramprakash feels the England A concept is a good one. "All the A tours I've been on have provided tough cricket in often testing conditions. In the West Indies, we had Courtney Walsh and Ken Benjamin against us. It was an experience that all the players benefited from. In India, we've had to cope with their spinners while our bowlers have had some typically bare Indian pitches to bowl on.

"The one batsman that has impressed me has been Jason Gallian, because he learnt his cricket out in Sydney. He's got a good mental approach to his batting. He thought out a game plan and stuck to it. When you look for things in players, he has that uncompromising toughness needed at Test level.

"Of the bowlers, Glenn Chapple has rolled up his sleeves and got on with the job on dead pitches. Both our left-arm spinners, Min Patel and Richard Stemp have bowled well. They seem to thrive on the competition between them, as have the keepers Paul Nixon and Keith Piper."

Still, it is one thing to show promise, quite another to fulfil it, as Ramprakash knows. "You occasionally hear that young players get a raw deal in England, but the bottom line is runs and wickets. I've never scored as many runs as Mike Gatting in any of the seasons we've played together. To have a stronger case, young players will have to match these high standards set by senior players."