Cricket: Crawley given a place as axe finally falls on Smith: Illingworth makes two hard decisions but Hick gets another chance

Click to follow
THE AXE had been poised over Robin Smith's head for so long it is no wonder it appeared to have rusted up. But yesterday, given another hefty shove by his own poor form, it finally fell, denying Smith the chance to play against his compatriots in their first Test in this country for 29 years.

Lining up against South Africa at Lord's on Thursday instead will be John Crawley. Narrowly selected ahead of Graham Thorpe, he owes his Test debut to the England captain, Mike Atherton, who he has now followed into school, University, Lancashire and England teams.

Despite that, it would be absolutely unfair and incorrect to suggest that this has had an effect on Atherton's judgement. The England captain is too self-contained and honest for that. Even so, his regular exposure to Crawley's batting must have assisted the younger man's chances in the same way as Essex players had an advantage under Gooch and Yorkshire ones do under Illingworth.

The verdict did not go down well at Surrey, whose director of coaching, Mike Edwards, said: 'It is disgraceful. Graham scored a century on debut against Australia and came back from the West Indies series with considerable credit and yet he has been consistently overlooked since. I cannot understand it, there is no rhyme or reason to it.'

Lancashire members, though pleased, may also have harboured some doubts. They have seen mixed form from Atherton this year and watched Crawley make four (as Lancashire were dismissed for 83 on Friday) and nought against Derbyshire this week.

Crawley himself appeared to feel some guilt, having reacted with the customary 'it's an honour' lines, he added: 'I feel very sorry for Graham, he has been very unlucky and I know if I don't do well he will be straight in.'

Given Crawley's ability - 'he is a high-class player with a long-term England future,' Atherton said with accuracy - he would have to have an absolute horror not to survive the series. It is Graeme Hick whose place is at risk.

He owes his survival in this team, Ray Illingworth suggested, to his slip catching and bowling as much as his batting - which indicates that the off-spinner Shaun Udal, called into the Test squad for the first time, will be 12th man unless the wicket changes dramatically.

Illingworth said Udal offered more than the dropped Peter Such in batting and fielding as well as being younger. 'Such has not been bowling that well recently and could do with a consistent spell in county cricket,' the chairman of selectors added. 'It was a very long meeting.'

Most of the near four hours of discussion was about the choice between Crawley and Thorpe, though some time was spent considering picking both. 'There is nothing to choose between them,' Illingworth said. 'In the end it came down to the captain. Thorpe is still very much in our thoughts, I don't think there is any doubt he will go to Australia.'

Since he has been given no chance to get himself dropped, that is not surprising. Hick, though, has been given a little more rope. 'Everyone says he has got to make the breakthrough sooner or later,' Illingworth said. Mmm, seem to have heard that before, not sure everyone believes it anymore and the longer he plays for a county that rates his spin as a last resort and prepares green wickets, the less they will.

The man who was dropped, Smith, seemed surprised, which is itself surprising since he expected to be dropped for the last Test in which he made 13. 'I did not really expect it,' he said. 'I'm devastated. It would have been an emotional moment for me at Lord's. But I'm not bitter and I'll come back.' An outcome expected by both Illingworth and Atherton.

Crawley is likely to bat at three with Gooch, in preparation for the role he is expected to play against Shane Warne in the winter, dropped to five.

More cricket, page 29