CRICKET 1997 : QUEST FOR THE ASHES : Why this will be a dangerous time for England

Derek Pringle looks at the direction of the new season as England A and The Rest prepare for today's curtain-raiser
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A new cricket season heralds many things. Already there has been doom and gloom from Wisden, a double century by Jonathan Lewis for his new club, Durham, against Oxford University and two days in a charm school for Atherton and his winter warriors. An exercise to teach them among other things how to behave like a team. Oh and the Australians are coming too, a muscular presence that will give Lord MacLaurin and all those at the England Cricket Board plenty to think about when they draw up their plans for restructuring the domestic game later in the season.

In many ways it is a dangerously tricky season for English cricket: win the Ashes and the necessary changes to the structure of county cricket may not go far enough; lose heavily and things may just become a bit too brutal, such as the introduction of two divisions.

If it were needed, partial evidence of this has already been seen from the recent goings on at Sussex, where the rapid diaspora of its more coveted talent to other counties is really just a sneak preview of what will happen to all those languishing at the bottom of the second division.

The future of county cricket has, financially at least, long been in Test cricket's pocket. Bizarrely, however, it is Test cricket that has been held in thrall by the counties, with players' priorities being firmly with their clubs and not their country.

It is a situation that is bound to affect more than the odd performance at international level and one that is thankfully now being addressed with some clubs beginning to rest players.

So far, despite the warnings of Lord MacLaurin that the national side must start winning, the game is still popular. Apparently, the first four days of the Lord's Test could have been sold three times over, an indicator that the game's finances are looking as healthy as ever. A view confirmed when Vodafone stepped in to replace Tetley as sponsors of the England team.

But can an England side with two Test victories from five Tests against two of the weakest sides in the world beat a team who has just dispatched two of the strongest, in South Africa and the West Indies? England have not beaten Australia for 10 years, a trend the bookmakers at least, do not feel will change now, with Ladbrokes offering 13-2 against England regaining the Ashes. In a way, that is exactly the point to this time of year, a time where all of us can hope and dream that those who deal in probabilities will be proved wrong.

Instead of plague and pestilence, however - which all visiting heavenly bodies are supposed to bring - Hale-Bopp has instead left us with a drought. This may have brought a thousand rural curses beyond the boundary rope, but spin bowlers and batsmen are already dipping their spinning fingers and bats into various oils and imprecations in anticipation of a bumper season on bone dry pitches and outfields.

This lack of rain is not likely to help England whose batsman will have to contend not only with Shane Warne but Michael Bevan too. Similarly, our seam bowlers prefer a bit of grass and moisture to help hone their cutting edge. Somehow Australia must be prevented from achieving scores over 400.

Now that the Australian squad has been announced, leaving some counties such as Yorkshire and Surrey engaged in a mad dash to find an overseas player, the question again arises whether they are a necessary part of the summer game?

With so many countries now engaged in year-round activity, the quality of imports is not always guaranteed. Indeed, there was going to be a moratorium on them in 1999, an experiment now cancelled by popular demand from the counties, who feel they cannot do without them.

Britain seems hooked on exotica and supermarkets, as well as most Premier division football clubs, are full of expensive foreign produce. In fact, the latest trend in cricket is not with overseas players, who have been around since before the war, but with foreign coaches.

Dav Whatmore at Lancashire, John Wright at Kent, Les Stillman at Derbyshire and Dave Gilbert at Surrey are just four of a burgeoning number now installed around the counties: surely a more telling factor to support Wisden's claims that the game is stagnating.

Personally, I feel overseas players can add a certain frisson to a club. As long as the player in question has more than 20 caps for his country, then a county is far more likely to learn things from him, than vice versa; the perennial complaint levelled at overseas professionals. If Surrey can overcome the loss of their Australian Brendon Julian, they could break their 26 year drought in the Championship, although Leicestershire are unlikely to take any challenge on their title lightly.

For people hoping for a closely fought Ashes series there were encouraging signs in New Zealand that Atherton had finally put together the kind of team he had come close to forging four years ago in the West Indies: before Raymond Illingworth rode in and stamped his confusion on proceedings.

With a settled and balanced unit there will - unless England lose the first three Tests heavily - be only one or two places for the hopefuls playing in today's game at Edgbaston, where the successful England A side, under Adam Hollioake, take on The Rest, led by Mark Ramprakash.

Mind you, with Atherton possibly about to have his selectorial vote revoked, it will be interesting to see if both Mike Gatting and Graham Gooch have been given leave by their counties to eye the talent on view. Getting the selections right this summer will be crucial if the Ashes is to be a contest and not a catastrophe.

TETLEY'S SHIELD (Edgbaston, today, first day of four): England A: M A Butcher (Surrey), J E R Gallian (Lancashire), M P Vaughan (Yorkshire), A McGrath (Yorkshire), A J Hollioake (Surrey, capt), M A Ealham (Kent), W K Hegg (Lancashire, wkt), P M Such (Essex), G Chapple (Lancashire), A J Harris (Derbyshire), D W Headley (Kent).

THE REST: J S Laney (Hampshire), D L Maddy (Leicestershire), C J Adams (Derbyshire), M R Ramprakash (Middlesex, capt), B C Hollioake (Surrey), R J Warren (Northants, wkt), V S Solanki (Worcestershire), D A Cosker (Glamorgan), A J Tudor (Surrey), S J E Brown (Durham), C E W Silverwood (Yorkshire).