Cricket: Don't bet on a Gower return: Mike Atherton may bide his time before starting to play his selectorial shots. Glenn Moore reports

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MICHAEL ATHERTON will tonight become privy to one of the more mysterious aspects of England cricket - just how do they pick the team? Will Ted be sitting there with a crystal ball and glazed eyes? Does Keith Fletcher bring the Essex averages with him? And is Dennis Amiss there to fix the drinks or the team?

It is to be hoped that, in years to come, Amiss won't sound like a member of the present electorate saying: 'Don't blame me, I didn't vote for him,' but it does seem odd that, as a selector, he was not involved in picking the new captain while the director of coaching - regardless of his identity or relatives - was. However, with the removal of arguably the strongest single voice - Graham Gooch - selection meetings should be more balanced.

The first England team for nearly four years to be picked without his input could be revealing or misleading. It is more likely to be the latter. While Atherton is more strong-willed than it appears, he is unlikely to impose himself on proceedings immediately. But he will not be content to be a 'yes' man.

At 25, he is half the age of any of his fellow selectors. He will also be younger than several members of the team, although not as many as in India last winter when of the original 16 only Chris Lewis was born later than him.

That youthfulness, and his newness, are bound to affect Atherton's contribution at this stage, so changes will be limited. Should he do well and be retained for the Caribbean tour, Atherton is likely to want a much greater say in composing the party.

For now the task is twofold - to prepare for the West Indies and, as Atherton said in his acceptance speech, to 'stop the rot' against the Australians. Failing the appointment of Michael Fish or a tribal rain-maker, the latter will best be achieved by retaining Gooch. He may still insist that he 'will not be taking (his) bat to the West Indies' but he remains the best wielder of willow available to the side.

The practice of playing seven batsmen is expected to continue. With Gooch retained, Mark Lathwell is the most vulnerable and, had Alec Stewart been made captain, he would certainly have gone to make way for Stewart's return to the top of the order. That would still be good, but it appears that Stewart will remain chained to the wicketkeeping gloves. Even so, Lathwell may still be given a rest from the rigours of Test cricket before returning for the hard wickets of the Caribbean.

That raises the prospect of a place for David Gower who, with Gooch mute, stands a far better chance of making the Test side. However, his case would be stronger if he had been making runs for Hampshire and, even though Gooch has been replaced by a Gower fan, another recall is by no means certain.

There are powerful alternatives, notably the Glamorgan pair of Hugh Morris and Matthew Maynard. Morris could go straight into an opener's position; Maynard's inclusion would involve Gooch moving back up the order to re- form his successful partnership with Atherton. Derbyshire's John Morris - following his timely double-century in front of Keith Fletcher this week - the resurgent Rob Bailey (Northamptonshire) and Graeme Hick are also contenders, the latter two offering the bonus of useful spin.

After the misreading of the untypical Headingley wicket, at least one front- line spinner, Peter Such, will play at Edgbaston. Should England arrive to find the pitch a prospective turner, Phil Tufnell or Ian Salisbury may well be summoned to Birmingham.

There will be at least one enforced change among the seamers, and possibly two. Given the present rate of attrition, Bupa will soon be upgrading its premiums for England bowlers. Martin McCague and Martin Bicknell are the latest to suffer.

While McCague's stress fracture of the back will keep him out for the rest of the season, the seriousness of Bicknell's strained knee ligaments is still unclear. If fit, he should get a second chance, if not Andy Caddick may be reprieved. One three-wicket spell at Trent Bridge apart, Caddick has been a disappointment in his four Tests, taking 5 for 488. His time will come but, as he admitted after taking five wickets in the NatWest Trophy last week, there is a big difference between Test and county cricket.

The other member of the Headingley four, Mark Illot, keeps doing just enough to hold off Paul Taylor without having made his place secure.

Devon Malcolm - who was the main reason for Fletcher's attendance at Cheltenham this week - heads the queue of replacements, especially with McCague's raw pace unavailable. He will always have bad spells but has taken wickets all season, including hauls of 5 for 98 against Lancashire and 6 for 57 against Sussex in the past five weeks.

Glamorgan's Steve Watkin will also be considered while, with Alan Igglesden's medical bulletin also featuring, the meeting will at times resemble a script conference for Casualty. The plot this week: will the new young doctor, replete with educational qualifications and quiet bedside manner, be able to succeed where the gnarled veteran failed and nurse the patient to health?

It may depend on whether the foreign body that has caused the latest relapse is feeling malignant or merely hung-over. Australia will be unchanged and the suspicion lingers that this weekend's match in Wales, against a Glamorgan side embittered by their constant rejection by the selectors, will be as demanding as anything they have, or will, face in England.

Possible XII: Atherton, Gooch, Smith, Maynard, Stewart, Thorpe, Hussain, Bicknell, Such, Malcolm, Ilott, Caddick.

(Photograph omitted)