Cricket: Atherton ready to answer the selectors' call

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WHEN England's tour selectors sit down today to decide on the side to meet Sri Lanka in the one- off Test starting here tomorrow it would be no surprise if they needed the help of photographs to remind them of the alternatives to the increasingly hapless bunch who have represented them in the limited-over thrashes.

England's itinerary and slavish adherence to the policy of treating one-day matches with the same priority as Tests means they have a choice between picking players who are out of form and those who are out of practice.

Having followed the first course with disastrous results on Wednesday, it may be time to bring in people whose confidence has been dimmed by inactivity rather than inability.

Whoever is left out can cross off Let's Talk Strine from their summer reading list, as should several who play, for unless there is a drastic improvement in performance, the closest they will be getting to the Ashes series is appearing in a tour brochure that has been wrongfooted by early print deadlines.

That much was made clear by the manager, Keith Fletcher, yesterday when he said: 'You can only take so much. A few of our players have got to start looking at their own performances, they cannot disappoint forever. We have not performed the way I want.'

Fletcher added that 'there are quite a few with a lot to prove in this Test'. Some of them, such as Michael Atherton and Paul Taylor, simply want to prove they deserve the chance to play, even if it is as badly as their colleagues - which would be difficult in some cases.

Others, such as Mike Gatting, who has had an increasingly disappointing tour by his high standards, need to prove they can still perform at this level.

Both Atherton and Gatting are likely to play in a side featuring six batsmen with Alec Stewart wicketkeeping and Robin Smith as Atherton's partner in the third opening combination in as many Tests. England have not reached 50 for the first wicket since the first innings at Headingley in July and Fletcher picked out the poor starts as a key factor in the team's inadequate batting.

The two main reasons for this have been the freezing out of Atherton and the unexpectedly poor form of Graham Gooch, who Fletcher said 'was never fit from the first two weeks of the tour'.

Paul Jarvis, Chris Lewis and probably Phil Tufnell will take three bowling places but the other two are wide open, although Phillip DeFreitas's chances of playing are only marginally ahead of the physio and occasional net bowler, Dave Roberts. However, given his ability in English conditions, DeFreitas may return quicker than his performances here deserve.

The Sri Lankans, in the unusual position of fancying themselves for back-to-back Test wins after six years without one, are likely to back the spinners who bowled out New Zealand to do the same to England. Their reputation of not being able to play the turning ball was rather substantiated on Wednesday when the part-timer Sanath Jayasuriya picked up two wickets, despite his ability to turn the ball square being only matched by his inability to land it on the square.

The men hoping to follow the Indian spinners, Anil Kumble, Venkatapathy Raju and Rajesh Chauhan, are Muttiah Muralitharan, a 20-year-old Tamil off- break bowler, and the leg-spinner Jayananda Warnaweera, who was accused of 'chucking' by Martin Crowe. Both possess promise but lack experience and if England can get the better of them, Sri Lanka have little else of merit in the bowling locker.

They do have plenty of effervescent batsmen, led by Roshan Mahanama, who hit successive centuries against New Zealand, and the national hero, Aravinda de Silva, as well as a keen enthusiasm which England, nine days from home, will struggle to match.

Fletcher said he is looking for an improvement in the field, where England at times have flapped like geriatric sea lions, and between the ears. This does not mean each player having to submit to a stubble test before being allowed on the field, despite rumours emanating from Lord's that Shavers' Weekly is sponsoring an emergency airlift of English razors.

Fletcher, who confessed to never shaving the morning of a game when playing in hot countries because it can bring on a 'sweat rash', was thinking more of brains than looks. At times players have appeared to be simply hoping something will happen rather than working to make it do so and Fletcher, a canny captain in his day, said: 'Whenever players go on to the field they should be thinking cricket. Not all of them think about what they are doing.' It is believed he was not referring to the selection committee. We will find out today.

ENGLAND (probable): A J Stewart (capt, wkt), M A Atherton, R A Smith, G A Hick, M W Gatting, N H Fairbrother, C C Lewis, J E Emburey, P Taylor, P W Jarvis, P C R Tufnell.

Leading article, page 24