Cricket: Countless names, too little choice

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The Independent Online
ENGLAND'S NEW selection panel might have started deliberations with a blank sheet of paper but it soon contained more names than a football referee's notebook. From every corner and every county they materialised, players with promise and potential, most of it unfulfilled, some of it hard to spot. Batsmen mostly, an assortment of all-rounders, a few bowlers for balance. If that sheet had been a road it would have suffered gridlock.

More than 30 English cricketers, and perhaps more than 40, will have been mentioned, at least in passing, while more than 20 may have merited long consideration. At stake in this are three matters of ascending importance: the team for the decisive Fourth Test against New Zealand, which begins at The Oval on Thursday; the squad for the winter tour to South Africa; and the shape of the team perhaps for the next three years.

The performance at Old Trafford was grievously disappointing. England escaped with a draw, thanks largely to the weather and a belatedly improved effort which was not spirited enough to conceal the truth. They are a mighty long way from the land of milk and honey, further than at the start of the season when by comparison it was almost around the next corner, perhaps as far from it as they have ever been.

This is hardly the first time that there has been a mood for change. Periodic bouts of soul-searching, prompted by heavy defeats and crass performances, have marked the English game. They are part of the fun. But this is surely the only occasion that such a gloomy frame of mind has been provoked by New Zealand (yes even when they were 1-1 in 1983).

The present pretty pass has already yielded two casualties. Graham Gooch and Mike Gatting have been removed as selectors. The new three-man panel is David Graveney, who remains as chairman, Nasser Hussain, the captain, and Duncan Fletcher, the new coach who does not assume his official duties until October. Graveney finds his position enhanced. He is more influential now and Hussain, thoroughly impressive so far in his short tenure and impressing those who matter too, is already the most powerful captain since Mike Brearley. He must not abuse it. They do not have an enviable task. It is one thing, as most observers seem to have suggested, to say that something must be done. But that old clarion call never covers what it is precisely that should be done.

It was Hussain who said they would start with a blank sheet (which might have been more profitably used before the First Test). The number of names doubtless at present emblazoned on it was sadly indicative not of the amount of talent coming through but of the shortage of it, or at least of the similarity of it. It is much of a muchness and it is playing on poor pitches and too often it is playing poorly.

That is the pessimistic view. The optimistic view is that they are not all alike. It has always been part of the selectorial task to identify the likely player, to pick him at the appropriate time and then to back the judgement. The third of those dictums is frequently harder to follow than the other two. For evidence of that ask Aftab Habib.

And it is possible that after hours of discussion, imploration and entreaty, the chairman will have summed up their discussion with something along the lines of: "Right that's it then lads, young Read cops the lot and gets back on his bike to the Midlands where he can have a chat with Aftab and we stick with the rest of the boys."

Possible but surely distinctly unlikely. There is a case for retaining all the top-order batsmen but that, surely, is why two of the G-men had to go. They have to take a punt and during their discussions they might like to have dwelt briefly on the thought that selectors before them have done so. A few years ago now a batsman was picked with the following record: a solitary century to his name two years earlier; an average of 21 the previous summer: and a top score in the current season of 36 no. That was David Gower.

No Gowers now, of course (or so we presumptuously suspect), but still a need to look forward. Those under serious threat include Graeme Hick, Alec Stewart, Graham Thorpe, Mark Ramprakash and Mark Butcher. It is sad about Hick. He could have done so much, taken batting to so many places, but he has not. Butcher, an enviably phlegmatic man, would be hard done by. Stewart has served England well but the selectors must ask, they really must, if he will still be serving them in a couple of years. Thorpe's place is secure but not as secure as it was; Ramprakash, whether he feels so or not, must begin to undo his shackles.

Fudge is possible. Hick and Butcher seem easier to drop than the others. Hick needed to score last time when he was brought in, it will be said, only as cover for Hussain whose broken finger kept him out. Butcher seems to be expecting it. Stewart might indeed be asked to keep wicket instead of Chris Read and something would be said about balance, the need to win the series, a long future for the young man, his difficulty so far in settling down. They had jolly well better keep Read in. He is a tough cookie, he is learning to play Test cricket and he has soft hands into which the ball melts when he holds it. When he relaxes he will be the genuine article and if he is discarded now it will be nothing more or less than a betrayal.

Darren Maddy probably deserves a shot. He is an opener who would benefit from Michael Atherton's company, he has been trifled with in one-dayers and he averages, if it counts, more than 50. Michael Vaughan (average 27) is perhaps more stylish. There is the condundrum: could Vaughan close the gap more easily? David Sales, 21, and scorer of a double and a triple century in a Championship which surely cannot be that soft, may be moulded into an international player.

They will go surely for an all-rounder. Gavin Hamilton (average 67 with the bat, 24 with the ball) would have been it but for an inopportune hamstring injury. His Yorkshire colleague, Craig White, is twice the cricketer now than he was when he first played for England (how Raymond Illingworth, his mentor would chortle) but the nod may go to the tough, likeable northerner who plays for Essex, Ronnie Irani. But he turns 28 this year.

And what of Graeme Swann, 20, a cygnet still who has it in him to match his name, a bold batsman, a bowler with loop and turn, one who looks as though he is actually enjoying this game? He is a long way from being the finished article, but that does not mean he should be overlooked for another two or three years. As for the out and out bowlers, it is time for Chris Silverwood to leave the one-cap wonders club and maybe to have a look at the slippery 21-year-old Steve Harmison. Alex Tudor and Darren Gough are in the wings, do not forget. It is tough for the selectors; they may have needed a forest eventually to write down all the names. But something must be done.

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