Cricket: Cork brought in from the cold

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By Derek Pringle Cricket Correspondent

ESCHEWING the spirit of experiment contained within their one-day squad, England's selectors have returned to first principles for next Thursday's Test against South Africa. There are no new names, but some familiar faces return, the most exciting being that of Dominic Cork, who will compete with Mark Ealham and Dean Headley for two of the four pace bowling slots.

Cork's inclusion, while likely to provoke the most comment, was not the main item of discussion, at least not in terms of time taken. That distinction belonged to the man who should partner Michael Atherton, at the head of England's batting order.

Four candidates, Darren Maddy, Nick Knight, Mark Butcher and Steve James, each with impressive credentials, were apparently considered. In the end, Butcher was the man of choice, a decision based in part on his fine form for Surrey this season.

"It was a close call, between all of them," David Graveney, the chairman of selectors, said. "What perhaps swung it, was our desire to have a left- right combination against their opening bowlers. Also Mark has been playing much better this year than when we picked him 12 months ago. He is playing longer innings now, as his knock against Somerset, where he carried his bat, showed."

Another reason why perhaps the vote fell Butcher's way, is that although Atherton has been playing more jauntily of late, there is still a post- captaincy pressure on him to get runs. Picking a newcomer like Maddy, despite the weighty plaudits, was a risk too far the first Test of a five match series. As it is, England will bat their best opener, Alec Stewart, at four, with Nasser Hussain - contrary to popular belief - happy to make the move to three.

Clearly, a different leap of faith was required for Cork, whose return, on the back of recent triumphs with both bat and ball for Derbyshire, follows 18 months of private and physical turmoil. Injury can be dispiriting enough for a sportsman, but when your domestic life becomes public knowledge, it is easy to become distracted.

"I'm a very proud man," Cork said yesterday. "Not only for myself, but for those who've stood by me. The last 18 months has been a hard time, and I've been lucky to have some special friends and family around me. I'm happy to have come through that.

"I know I've got ability and I've got to back it. What matters now is that I concentrate on cricket and focus on what I do best. I feel relaxed and I think I've been picked at the right time."

Cork's personal problems have not been the only factors involved in his selection. There was also the matter of his gratuitous on-field antics, performances that flitted between the dynamic and the dimwitted.

Under the new image directives of Lord MacLaurin, many of Cork's excess were unacceptable and both Graveney as well as his Lordship visited the all-rounder during the winter, the first for six years that he had not spent touring with one England side or another.

"We've watched him a lot this season," Graveney said, "and although it would be premature to say there has been a complete recovery, there's been enough to impress us. I think county captaincy has broadened his horizons. We've tried to be supportive and I think he knows what is expected. It's now time for Dominic Cork the cricketer to step forward."

It is a move that is already under way, and Cork apparently returned from his winter, the fittest player on the Derbyshire staff.

When the ball is swinging, Cork can be a destructive swing bowler, as many of the current South African batsmen will testify. When it isn't though, he can be as expensive as Devon Malcolm with his radar jammed.

However, despite the recall, Cork may not make the final eleven - the final choice of perming two out of him, Ealham and Headley, is unlikely to be made until the Edgbaston pitch has been given the once over by both Stewart and selectors.

If the unexpected happens, and it threatens to turn, another spinner will be drafted in to join Robert Croft, now deservedly back in the team after a frustrating winter in the Caribbean, where he played just one Test.

If perceived wisdom has it right, the pitch could well be slow and damp, a ploy often used to minimise the uneven bounce that has dogged recent pitches there. If it is, then both Ealham and Cork will probably play, otherwise Headley's extra pace would almost certainly have to be accommodated.

Of the other bowlers aired during the meeting, Ed Giddins, another with off-pitch problems, was perhaps closest to being jotted down. Since his 18-month ban, Giddins has taken to Edgbaston's fickle pitches impressively. For England's sake, let us hope Allan Donald and Shaun Pollock, both Warwickshire players themselves in recent years, don't do likewise.

England team

M A Atherton (Lancashire)

Age 30, Tests 79

M A Butcher (Surrey)

25, 10

N Hussain (Essex)

30, 29

A J Stewart (Surrey, wkt, capt)

35, 75

G P Thorpe (Surrey)

28, 49

M R Ramprakash (Middx)

28, 23

M A Ealham (Kent)

28, 6

D G Cork (Derbyshire)

26, 19

R D B Croft (Glamorgan)

28, 11

D Gough (Yorkshire)

27, 21

D W Headley (Kent)

28, 9

A R C Fraser (Middlesex)

32, 38