Cricket: England have to look hard at Smith and Hick: Glenn Moore on the dilemma facing the selectors following a bad display at Lord's

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The Independent Online
LARGE portions of humble pie all round please, but hold the mint sauce. Clearly, after their performance in the second Test at Lord's, New Zealand's lambs are not as bad as most people thought; neither are England as good as some people hoped.

Changes always were likely for the third Test, which opens at Old Trafford tomorrow week, but the anticipated scenario was that they would be for the purpose of experimenting, this series having already been won. Instead they will be to inject confidence and quality into a badly shaken side.

If we seem to have been here before it is because we have; last autumn, last summer, last spring, last winter and so on, but this year it is supposed to be different with unusual concepts like long-term planning entering the equation. That, as both Mike Atherton, the captain, and Ray Illingworth, the chairman of selectors, have stressed, means identifying talent and sticking with it, but it does not mean backing players ad infinitum. Form may be temporary and class permanent but both qualities are required to perform at Test level.

So, too, is the right mental approach: Steve Rhodes showed in both innings that he has it; at present neither Robin Smith or Graeme Hick appears to do so.

While Hick has never looked entirely comfortable at Test level, Smith has declined from a brutal destroyer of attacks to a nervous scratcher of runs. Although his bristling moustache, thumping shots and entrepreneurial inclinations suggest a fulsome personality, he possesses a fragile confidence which has been steadily eroded in the last few years.

A succession of poor tours, followed by last summer's ordeal against Shane Warne, has led him to laboriously dissect his batting with the result that he has become stilted and fearful at the crease. It has become a regular feature of England series that, midway through, an out-of-form Smith will be quoted pledging to 'go down in flames', only to be dismissed in single figures after an hour's blocking.

Against spin he appears to be forcing himself into playing shots that are unnatural to him; against every type of bowling he is so desperate to play his favoured cut shot that it has become a weakness as he attempts it against balls that are too close to the stumps or, as at Lord's on Monday, of unsuitable bounce. Such a lack of confidence seems strange in a batsman who made 175 in Antigua two Tests ago, is showing good form for Hampshire and still averages 44 in Tests.

But that innings, on a flat pitch in a dying match, was the one bright spot in a grim Caribbean tour for a player who was supposed to be England's leading batsman. The weight of expectation was one of the problems, with Smith's discomfort manifesting itself in his reluctance to bat at No 3.

While Illingworth was reluctant to discuss individuals after Lord's, he did admit 'Robin has had a tough time scoring Test runs for the past 18 months', and will no doubt be discussing him at some length this weekend.

Hick, while making some runs at Lord's, was again incapable of playing a leading innings - only twice in 43 Test innings has he done so, against India in Bombay last February, and in Jamaica this February.

After Bombay, when he batted with great composure under considerable pressure (seeking his maiden century he was 99 not out overnight), it looked as if Hick had arrived. Then he, instead of Smith, was dropped for the third Test last summer and, though he has averaged 39 since getting back into the side, he has never inspired any sense of permanence. Now 28, he could have a dozen years batting in him and, given his obvious potential and the investment England have made in his realising it, dropping him is always done with reluctance. However, that has not stopped it happening for the last three home series and a fourth time beckons.

The survival of the other vulnerable players, Paul Taylor and Craig White, is likely to be decided as much on the fitness of others as their own ability, with White's inclusion also dependent on the composition of the side. While a promising batsman and excellent fielder, he is not yet a Test class third seamer which will weigh against him if England want to play two spinners at Old Trafford.

So, much hard thinking after Lord's for England, and much hard drinking for the rejuvenated New Zealanders. Having been dismissed in most quarters as the worst touring side to come here for more than a decade they have improved to the extent that Clive Lloyd, the match referee, regards them as one of the most exciting young sides in world cricket.

Through a mixture of luck and faith they have gathered, in Stephen Fleming, Dion Nash, Shane Thomson, Adam Parore and Matthew Hart, a clutch of young players (none are over 25) who could serve them for years. The five began this tour with 24 Tests between them and, nurtured by Ken Rutherford's sympathetic captaincy, have matured at a rate that Atherton, who has had to jettison several of the young players he took to the West Indies, can only envy.