Cricket: Bowlers hold key to series for England

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The Independent Online
By Derek Pringle Cricket Correspondent

SUCH ARE the fickle responses of the country's sporting barometer, that it has taken less than a week for the public's interest in English cricket to move from the doldrums to something approaching fever pitch. As ever, winning has much to do with the response, and with the series against South Africa poised at 1-1, the final Test at Headingley promises to be that rare thing in cricket: a decider.

For England the stakes are high, though South Africa too, have yet to win a five-match series of any significance since their return to the big time. Sensing the enormity of the occasion, the England selectors, all from the "if it ain't broke don't fix it" school of team maintenance, have retained the XII that helped level the series at Trent Bridge.

It is unusual for Headingley to be used for the final Test of a series, and the most recent occasions were against the West Indies in 1980 and Pakistan in 1982. If the results have any bearing over the outcome after Thursday, suffice it to say that England lost neither. Mind you, it is almost as long since they won successive home Tests, the last time being against Australia in 1985, a side that contained Botham as well as Gower and Gooch.

As a ground, Headingley has a reputation for helping seam and swing bowling, though this has more to do with the conditions overhead than those underfoot. For that reason, Ian Salisbury may find himself surplus to requirements. If Shane Warne and Mushtaq Ahmed can only take four wickets between them in two Tests against England there, spinners are hardly compulsory, which is presumably why Robert Croft, in the 13-man squad for Trent Bridge, has been dropped.

Providing Mark Ramprakash's tonsillitis does not worsen, England have, including Graeme Hick, two batsmen who can fill in with some off-spin. This back-up, may tempt England to include Alan Mullally alongside the three main seam bowlers and Andrew Flintoff.

One of the aspects of Trent Bridge that worried the selectors, was how few options, other than to bowl Angus Fraser all day, Alec Stewart had regarding his bowlers. True, Darren Gough had a toenail problem (now removed), and Salisbury was an extravagance, but England were dangerously stretched at times to the extent that Flintoff, in his maiden Test, was forced to bowl more overs than he was otherwise used to.

Mullally, a steady performer even without his newly acquired inswinger, will temper that worry, though the bold approach would still be to pick Salisbury. The leg-spinner may not look able to run through the early order, but he still has the cunning to lord it over a dangerous tail, surely an asset in a match that could be nip and tuck all the way.

If England were to take this route, and much will depend on the kind of pitch they find when they get to Leeds, it could be Dominic Cork who finds himself carrying the drinks.

Since his dynamic return at Edgbaston and Lord's, Cork has lacked penetration. If less obvious at Old Trafford, it stood out at Trent Bridge, where a lack of swing left him with little to offer. If he does play at Headingley, England need him back with a spring in his step.

Gough, too, needs to perform, though his home crowd have yet to see him at his best in a Test match. In a recent interview Gough stated that he wanted to be as good as Allan Donald, who if he has anything left after his stupendous effort in the last Test, will again be the main threat England will have to counter.

A cheery sort of chap, Gough admits to trying to be a crowd pleaser, admitting that the response of spectators lifts him. In contrast, Donald lifts himself, irrespective of the situation. At Headingley, with the Yorkshire public willing Gough on, it will be interesting to see which of the two prevails.

ENGLAND SQUAD (for fifth Test against South Africa at Headingley starting Thursday, 6 August): MA Atherton (Lancashire) Age 30 Tests 83, MA Butcher (Surrey) 25 12, N Hussain (Essex) 30 33, AJ Stewart (Surrey, capt & wkt) 35 79, GA Hick (Worcestershire) 32 47, MA Ramprakash (Middlesex) 28 27, A Flintoff (Lancashire) 20 1, IDK Salisbury (Surrey) 28 10, DG Cork (Derbyshire) 26 23, D Gough (Yorkshire) 27 24, ARC Fraser (Middlesex) 32 42, AD Mullally (Leicestershire) 29 9.