Cricket: England pick the infirm and in form

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ENGLAND UNVEILED their World Cup squad at Lord's yesterday, before revealing that four of the players chosen - Michael Atherton, Graham Thorpe, Neil Fairbrother and Ian Austin - have two weeks to pass a series of fitness tests. In contrast, Australia, one of the tournament favourites, have left out two of their fittest players, Greg Blewett and Michael Slater, who are playing some of the best cricket of their careers.

Apart from the haste with which the "infirm four" have to prove their fitness, there were few surprises, and 10 of those involved in the recent one-day series in Australia were included. Inevitably, with such an important event as the World Cup, there were disappointments as well, and Nasser Hussain, one of England's leading scorers in that series, was left out.

It was, according to the chairman of selectors, David Graveney, one of several tough decisions in shaping a squad that apparently took until Sunday to ratify.

If many will see Hussain's absence as a glaring omission, the presence of the 21-year-old Andrew Flintoff was a positive factor. Having lost a good deal of weight at the end of the season, Flintoff caught the selectorial eye just at the right time and his explosive batting performances on the A tour of Zimbabwe and South Africa have roused interest.

One thing irks, however, and considering that the four under review - Fairbrother (recurring hamstring trouble), Austin (recent knee operation), Thorpe and Atherton (both dodgy backs) - are the selectors' first choice, the insistence on a 15 March deadline appears ungenerous. The tournament in Sharjah in early April may be a good place to make final preparations, but the conditions are so different as to make the drawing of any worthwhile conclusions minimal.

According to Graveney, the stringent deadline is to avoid the issue being fudged further down the line. "They will be tested by Wayne Morton, the England physio, over a period of days. If there are any doubts they won't be included," he said. But while one can see his point, that they have until 2 May to make any final changes, as well as the right to replace a player at any time, makes the haste seem indecent.

For Atherton, the period may prove insufficient anyway. This week he undergoes work on a troublesome facet joint in his lower back. The process, which involves nothing more intrusive than an injection, blocks off the pain signals transmitted by the nerve which cause the back muscles to go into protective spasm. This, apparently, is a different problem to the chronic spondolytis he has somehow coped with most of his career.

If it sounds gruesome, Atherton is hopeful that he will no longer have to endure cortisone jabs. Even so, expecting Atherton to gambol around like a spring lamb in a fortnight's time - remember, run-saving in the field will be just as important as run-scoring with the bat - may be asking a bit too much of him.

By his own admission, Atherton, who has played just a single one-day international in the past year, feels he is in the squad as an option rather than a certainty. This is not the case with either Thorpe or Fairbrother, both of whom would be first choice to occupy the middle-order. Indeed, a thumbs-up from Atherton for the first game would significantly improve England's chances of making the final.

As hosts, England will have great hopes of winning the trophy for the first time. The biggest obstacle, though, will getting past their group stage, which includes India, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe and Kenya, from which three teams qualify.

However, the early season conditions - the first match, England v Sri Lanka, is at Lord's on 14 May - should favour Alec Stewart's side, which is probably why the selectors have included Angus Fraser as well as gambling on the likes of Atherton and Austin, who both have exceptional one-day records in England.

The announcement of a 15-man squad comes a month early - 31 March is the deadline for final squads, which is why other countries have named 19 players in their selections.

With no more cricket before the cut-off date, the selectors felt that further prevarication was futile. In two weeks' time we should know.

Cullinan's record, Under-19s' sick day, page 23