Alec Stewart has been thrown a chance to revive his flagging England career. The hamstring injury sustained by Neil Fairbrother prompted manager Ray Illingworth to send for Mark Ramprakash yesterday as a World Cup replacement.
While Ramprakash will only play in Saturday's quarter-final against Sri Lanka if more misfortune befalls England, Stewart suddenly has an opportunity to end his worrying winter on a high note. The decision to drop their vice-captain from Sunday's match with Pakistan was the clearest indication yet that Stewart's star is waning after six years as a Test and one-day international regular.
He scored only one half-century during the recent five-Test series in South Africa, prompting Illingworth to exclude his name from those who could feel confident of their places this summer. Eight limited-overs internationals since the start of January have brought an equally poor return - just a single contribution in excess of 50.
The axe has been hovering, and it fell before the seven-wicket defeat by Pakistan despite speculation Stewart might replace Jack Russell behind the stumps. With Robin Smith making a success of opening the batting another door slammed shut, but Fairbrother's injury has created a gap in England's middle order for Stewart to fill at Faisalabad on Saturday.
Poorly though England have played, both collectively and, in the majority of cases, individually so far, the chance remains to make amends. As Illingworth said after the defeat by Pakistan: "We haven't lost any important games yet - the important ones are still to come."
For Ramprakash to have any hope of making an impact, Illingworth's men must beat Sri Lanka. Then, once acclimatised, he could be a semi-final contender. Any opportunity is better than none at all. Thirteen months ago the Middlesex batsman flew from India to Australia at short notice, walked into the fifth Ashes Test and did himself proud with innings' of 72 and 42. That was supposed to be the turning point of Ramprakash's career - but he failed against West Indies the following summer - and failed again in South Africa earlier this winter.
"Mark has been on standby since we came out here and we are perfectly happy to have him now," said Illingworth following speculation that Nasser Hussain might have been a better bet.
Fairbrother was last night preparing to start his sad journey home. It is not only the end of his World Cup but, at 32 and with a lengthening list of hamstring injuries, it could be the end of his England career.
"Losing the last World Cup final was probably more disappointing, but this is bad," the Lancashire left-hander said.
n England are to tour Pakistan from October to December in the year 2000, in what will be their first Test trip to the country in 13 years.
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