Cricket: Consistent selection fosters unity

Robert Winder believes the tourists' rising fortunes have benefited from allowing players to regain form - but Australia pose a far tougher challenge
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The Independent Online
England's pleasing and impressive win in New Zealand seems to have provoked, with almost indecent haste, a feeling that next summer's Ashes are as good as in the bag.

Even the players must have chuckled over yesterday's headlines. Only a fortnight ago, having failed for four hours to dislodge the world's worst Test batsman, they were a laughing stock. Now, helped by an unsighted umpire and a couple of dropped catches, they are world-beaters.

It might seem unsporting to sound a cool note in the prevailing glee, but this could be a good time to urge caution. The truth is that there probably is not a single New Zealander who would get into the present Australian side.

Having said that, there really have been some good points in the last few weeks. Some are tactical - it is clearly right to have Alec Stewart keeping wicket and play a second spinner, and good news to have Andy Caddick back in the limelight. But, mainly, it is a managerial matter. For the first time in ages, England have shown some consistency in selection. Not long ago, Graham Thorpe would have had a tough job getting a game in New Zealand after his failures in Zimbabwe, but the team stood by him and he recovered his fine form with two centuries. The same could be said of Michael Atherton himself.

More important than any individual case, though, is the confident togetherness that has been bred by a settled selection. Which is where the note of caution comes in. After years of little but trouble, England do look like a promising team. But to beat Australia they know they need to improve another notch - and the trouble is they probably won't have time to.

Ideally, what would happen is that they would have a bit of disco-fun in the one-day series, and then head home to rest and plan. But this is a fantasy. Before the players know it, they will be knee-deep in pre-season tours, tonking it about in the nets, and enduring two-sweater days in damp, empty grounds.

Just think what they could be doing. Caddick could be figuring out a way to avoid sending five consecutive balls down the leg side (except on purpose), and Darren Gough could be learning how to add accuracy to his slipperiness. But they won't be - they will be taking wickets against Durham and Sussex, on seaming pitches.

The two left-handers, Nick Knight and Thorpe, could be devising a response to bouncy leg-spin from the rough outside their off stump. But they won't be - they will be cutting and pulling medium-pacers for a month before they run into Warne, and then, as likely as not, Shane will stop play.

There are plenty of grounds for optimism - but look out for these warning signs. The season will begin, John Crawley will be out of touch, while Graeme Hick and Robin Smith are duffing up all-comers, inspiring a clamour for their return. Stewart will fail in the one-dayers, reviving the argument about whether Jack Russell should keep wicket. The call will go up for an all-rounder, and someone will scurry off to look for Craig White's phone number. For Headingley they will decide they need four seamers, and send for Mark Ilott, who took 7 for 40 against Derbyshire last weekend. There will be a suspicion that Devon Malcolm must play at The Oval. Before we know it, the team won't be a team any more.

Wouldn't it be fine if Atherton could fly home tomorrow, skipping the five one-dayers and giving himself time to think and plot, time to find a way to be a less deadpan, more invigorating, leader?

It would be good for Nasser Hussain to be in charge in these merry frolics; and Athers himself would be able to start next season afresh, and with his reputation high. Public disgrace, for him, is only a slog from a New Zealand tailender away.

He would probably go fishing, and that would be fine, too. A week or so hunched in the rain beside some murky river, casting and waiting, casting and waiting, and he would been burning to get back on to a cricket field. A pity that's too much to hope for...