Cricket: England pace themselves before the final assault: Tufnell likely to be left out for third Cornhill Test at The Oval today

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WITH the Test and County Cricket Board promising to plough back a large chunk of its pounds 60 million television windfall into grass-roots cricket, the only earthy thought inside Michael Atherton's head this morning is that most of the grass roots at The Oval are to be found inside the groundsman's shed.

The Oval, in fact, could do with a dollop of the TV cash themselves to help pay for the heaviest lawnmower fuel bills on the circuit. The pitch for the third and final Test match against South Africa is, as ever, distinctively hard and bare, and when England's team sheet is pinned up this morning, Philip Tufnell may find it distinctly hard to bear.

Atherton yesterday made it clear that going in with only five batsmen was not an option in England's bid to square the series, and despite offering Tufnell's bowling credentials a glowing reference, he then dropped a sizeable hint that, given a choice between Tufnell's loop and guile and a four-pronged pace attack, he was more inclined to reach for the gelignite than the fly-fishing rod.

'Five bowlers would be nice in an ideal world,' Atherton said, 'but the best way to go about winning a Test match is pressurising the opposition through weight of runs. Four bowlers was enough when we beat Australia here last summer.'

With Darren Gough and Phillip DeFreitas certain to play, Atherton then went on to say that The Oval's extra bounce would be suited to Devon Malcolm and that Joey Benjamin had 'taken wickets all summer' for Surrey. 'It would also be nice to see how they go before the winter tour,' Atherton added, although this is a curious time to be discussing forward planning. One-nil down with one to play is precisely the time that the selectors ought to be being praised for, rather than accused of, being short-sighted.

If, in view of all this, Tufnell still finds his way into the final XI this morning, it might further the speculation that Atherton's most significant input at one of Raymond Illingworth's selectorial gatherings is asking the chairman how many lumps he'd like in his tea.

However, this neither corresponds with the knowledge that Illingworth is also thinking seriously about doing without a specialist spinner, nor with the fact that when Illy peers out of the bedroom window for a glimpse of his brave new dawn, the Farsley Town Hall clock has a curiously luminous dial, and appears to be striking midnight.

After the 'long-term, let's look to the future' notion, this week's Oval nets have been full of Gooches, Gattings and Malcolms. The Atherton- Stewart opening partnership was identified by Illingworth as 'one of the big bonuses' of the West Indies tour (hence Stewart at No 5) and this summer's battle cry was two spinners and an all-rounder at No 6. Before we know it, Raymond will be chuntering on about Jupiter and smog.

However, Illingworth is a practical man, and while he may secretly harbour romantic notions, these have been swiftly dispelled after sifting through the available material. The only real argument against the 12 selected for this match is which one of them drops out.

If it is Tufnell, it will be a hard decision to agree with. As Atherton himself said yesterday, Tufnell is neither a big spinner of the ball, nor does he need a turning pitch in order to take wickets. If England noted the discomfort with which Hansie Cronje handled the short stuff from Gough at Headingley, they should also have taken on board that Kepler Wessels versus Tufnell was not hugely removed from a game of blind man's buff.

Atherton said that he would be 'reluctant' to go into the match without Tufnell, but then chipped in with a rather large but. 'Ultimately, you pick the four bowlers you think are likely to get you the most wickets. If I was a batsman, I know who I'd rather be facing on this pitch,' he said, a comment he could only have rendered more unambiguous by striding helmetless to the nets and practising his sweep.

'If I was a batsman,' was clearly a slip of the tongue, if a touch Freudian. Asked about his lack of runs at county level, Atherton produced a 'hang-on-a-minute' grin and said: 'I think I've just passed the 200-mark for Lancashire.' This, he conceded, might be connected to near non-stop Test cricket since February, which had left him 'feeling tired.'

One of the reasons for omitting Angus Fraser, Atherton said, was that the selectors felt he was looking a 'bit tired', although as he said this immediately after declaring that The Oval style of pitch, firm and bouncy, was 'just what bowlers like Fraser need', no one appears to need a rest more than England's selectors.

However, fatigue has not prevented them from sticking to traditional methods of incorrigible team tinkering. South Africa, by contrast, have fielded the same XI in their last five Tests, although Andrew Hudson's lack of form may this time result in a change at the top of the order.

ENGLAND (from): M A Atherton (capt), G A Gooch, G A Hick, G P Thorpe, A J Stewart, J P Crawley, S J Rhodes (wkt), P A J DeFreitas, D Gough, J E Benjamin, D E Malcolm, P C R Tufnell, M W Gatting.

SOUTH AFRICA (from): A C Hudson, G Kirsten, W J Cronje, K C Wessels (capt), P N Kirsten, J N Rhodes, D J Richardson (wkt), B M McMillan, C R Matthews, P S de Villiers, A A Donald, D J Cullinan.

Umpires: K E Palmer, S Dunne (NZ).

Mark Lawson on cricket's TV deals, page 20