Cricket: Crying need for good judgement

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AS THE captain of England departed the scene of his latest defeat he ran the gauntlet of fans who had a few words to say. What emanated from their mouths was quite astonishing and it might have rocked Nasser Hussain to his very core. "Jolly good luck in South Africa," said one. "All the best for the tour," said another. "Have a good winter, hope the lads all go well," put in a third. "Go to it Nass," said a younger follower.

Jolly good luck? So what happened to "What a bunch of useless deadbeats" then? Or, "Nass, you're 'avin' a larf ain't yer?" Considering the parlous state of the England team, who are now the worst in the world, the expressions which greeted Hussain as he left Eastbourne early on Thursday afternoon (sadly, he is losing more than he would like with Essex as well as England) were more than mere words of encouragement. They were implorations and they demonstrated that there remains, for some reason, a residue of goodwill and a desperate wish for England to do well.

Hussain has discovered with alarming swiftness how onerous is the task for which he has been chosen. At The Oval after the surrender against New Zealand the captain backed his team, but he came as close to crying in public as might be advisable: tears might not be the best weapon in persuading your charges to follow you to the ends of the earth, or at least to Cape Town and back.

The moistening around his eyes would not have been diminished by the boos and catcalls which faced him as he stared out from the Kennington balcony, so any clue that there are legions of cricket fans out there who have not given up on England no matter how many times they give up on themselves, will hearten him. As he left the Saffrons with Essex having been hammered by eight wickets by Sussex, he thanked his well-wishers and must have thanked his lucky stars that they still exist. Onerous task or not, however, Hussain is now the most powerful England captain for years. He knows he must not abuse it.

The fond farewells, of course, should not conceal the truth of England's chances or their plight. Whether they have a squad who can win, whether any combination they alighted on could do that, is doubtful. And whether England's collective state of mind will have recovered in time is hardly more certain. David Graveney, the chairman of selectors, and the other two members of the panel, Hussain and the new coach Duncan Fletcher, bowed to the inevitable in introducing new faces.

As Graveney said, there were cases for dropping all the batsmen and there were cases for retaining them all. But the latter would not have washed. Mark Ramprakash has alone paid the price. He has been dreadfully out of sorts for most of the summer and to call him a scapegoat may be introducing a contentious issue needlessly. But he is unlucky since everybody else has won the vote, and it is disingenuous to suggest that he and Alec Stewart were vying for one place. It is hardly like for like. Of the bowlers, Phil Tufnell may be fortunate. By the end we may be saying: "Spinner, what spinner?"

Four uncapped players out of 17 is an enormous proportion, not least because another four have a mere nine appearances between them. Perversely, this might help with the mental condition. That octet are going into the unknown, where defeat has not begun to stalk them so regularly that they must feel like taking out a court injunction against it.

The crucial part of their selection is that they continue to be selected. Graveney might have started his tenure full of good intentions but, as it has turned out, as great a number of players have been capped as under previous incumbents. There have been 14 new ones in all and with another four likely to get a debut this winter that is nearly two new teams. Usually, when changes have been made the recent new boys have made way. It is time for that to stop.

Selection is about making a judgement and backing it, if not for as long as it takes then for as long as it takes selectors to stay in office before handing the blank sheet of paper on.

Graveney, a diligent man who has watched a huge amount of cricket while wearing more hats than Gertrude Shilling, may be feeling slightly alienated. As chairman (he is also chief executive of the Professional Cricketers' Association and has been pro tem manager) the buck obviously stops with him. He is not, however, a paid employee of the board and it was indeed slightly bizarre that he was all alone, all alone and blue perhaps, in fielding questions about England's tour on Monday.

Graveney was apparently reappointed for a further two-year term two months ago but has heard nothing officially. Nobody has written him a letter to say so. Presumably, the ECB's international teams director, Simon Pack, is desperately busy directing international teams, if not picking them, guiding them and coaching them, so has no time for correspondence. Maybe, he does not consider who picks the team important, maybe he knows something we do not about Graveney's fate.

For his part, the chairman was down to business again at the weekend. Having managed to find 24 different players to fill the spots in the Test and one-day squads for the winter he and his team were trying to find 15 more for the A tour. Names would have leapt off the page, about 115 of them. The A tour is important, though not perhaps as significant as it should be. England have to start playing A Tests at home as well.

The system produced the likes of Graham Thorpe and Dominic Cork and in this year's party, Hussain, Mark Butcher, Darren Maddy and Graeme Swann are all graduates. Chris Adams and Gavin Hamilton are not. So, it can be a guide to future Test players. Or it cannot. The captain for this year's trip to Bangladesh and New Zealand, starting in October, is likely to be Mark Alleyne of Gloucestershire. There is no likely young man around this time.

Given Graveney's belief that those who have played for England should be good enough for England A, players such as Aftab Habib, Ronnie Irani and Ed Giddins should also be in with a shout. The bowlers could include Chris Silverwood, Steve Harmison, Paul Franks, Paul Hutchison and any spinner they can find. Not many people have seen Michael Davies of Northamptonshire but if, at 23, he is as precise a slow left-armer as apparently good judges are queueing up to say, he had better go. Middle-order batsmen are not forming an orderly queue. David Sales has promise enough to go, faith may be shown, in the absence of runs, in Ed Smith and Matthew Wood. That would qualify as selectorial judgement.

Almost all the power this winter will reside with Hussain and Fletcher, as it should do. Much will depend on their relationship. The news from South Africa is helpful. Their new chairman of selectors, Rushdie Magiet, has announced that Hansie Cronje, their most successful captain of all time (21 wins in 44 Tests, 86 wins in 118 one-dayers) will be appointed only for the first two Tests. They want to be sure he is sure of a place. Nothing like imposing your authority and spreading disarray where none previously existed.

England's party will be leaner than before. Bob Cottam, the bowling coach, is going briefly. There are still plans afoot to appoint full-time specialist coaches. Apparently, Pack is working on these. Jolly good luck, then. That old buffer at the Saffrons meant it, but he doubtless recognised above all that Hussain needs it.