Cricket: An open and shut case for selectors

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The Independent Online
ALEC STEWART should be forced to burn his wicket- keeping gloves - and it would not cause him to lose any sleep. At last, he has been restored to his rightful position at the top of the order and, after a little bit of early luck, he played as well as he has ever done and underlined how much this England team has been handicapped by not having him open the innings in the first three Tests. Seldom can an object lesson have been so forcibly taught.

It has been nonsense putting such a good player of fast bowling down the order where he has been full of doubts against the spinners, in order that he can take care of the wicket- keeping duties in addition, of course, to captaining the side. A good deal of meddling and reorganising had to go on so that he could go back to his rightful position and Warren Hegg has had to take over behind the stumps. It all worked beautifully.

Stewart is worth far more to this England side as an opening batsman than he is as a keeper, even if it means that the side becomes badly balanced. Stewart is such a dominating player, one of the few able to take the initiative from the best new-ball bowlers in the world.

There is an authority about his batting, which is not given to many. To hide him away in the middle-order where he struggles against spin is incredibly short-sighted.

He made 63 not out in England's second innings two weeks ago. But it was an innings which saw almost none of those upright strokes which have broken the hearts of so many new-ball bowlers all over the world. It is an affront to nature to use him in this sort of defensive capacity and it renders him powerless.

It was a late decision to move him back up the order and it was only when the players arrived at the ground that Stewart told Hegg that he had a chance of playing. In the six innings England have had in this series before this one in Melbourne, Mike Atherton and Mark Butcher's opening partnerships have averaged only 18 and none of their runs has been made with any authority.

Stewart survived two snicks against Damien Fleming, but then began to square cut and pull with both a power and a disdain which bowlers do not take kindly to. Intermingled between these strokes were some lovely fluent drives and they had an effect not only on the Australian bowlers but also on the batsmen at the other end. Nasser Hussain began to play extremely well before a sudden and unusual misjudgement forced him into a forward defensive stroke against Matthew Nicholson and he was caught behind.

When Mark Ramprakash took Hussain's place, he, too, found Stewart's strokeplay infectious and played his best innings of the series. It was sad that both were out to casual strokes in successive overs, but by then Stewart had made his point. He has surely guaranteed Hegg a second Test match, in Sydney, and has caused England's uninspiring selectors to think a few things through.

They have now to try to find a way to prevent the side being as unbalanced as it seems when Stewart no longer keeps wicket. One way of doing this would be actively to encourage Ramprakash to spend much more time working on his off-breaks. He has the ability to become a regular rather than a part-time bowler but he badly needs as much bowling as he can get.

His lapses in length are the result more than anything of an appalling lack of practice. Stewart has not appeared to rate his bowling that highly but if he wants to discard those gloves on a permanent basis, one way of ensuring it would be to give Ramprakash a chance to become a front- line bowler. They also have to decide if Hegg is the best wicketkeeping option or whether Paul Nixon's batting might make him a better bet.