Cricket: England ponder the problems of pace

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The Independent Online
TOMORROW morning, more than 60 hours after being selected, England's cricket team for the fourth Test match will be announced. The breathing space is to allow the selectors to discover whether their pace bowlers have been boosting their collection of wickets, or, more likely, boosting sales of Ralgex and Elastoplast.

Over the past few seasons, so many of England's leading bowlers have gone bust, that Ted Dexter must spend the time between selection and match day pacing up and down like a World War II bomber station commander, waiting to see how many planes will return.

Phillip DeFreitas has not played since missing the Old Trafford Test, neither Chris Lewis nor Derek Pringle is properly fit, Ian Botham has a cracked bone in a finger, Gladstone Small, Martin Bicknell and Philip Tufnell have all had injury or illness problems, and Angus Fraser has spent the last 18 months recovering from a hip complaint.

The kiss of death, it seems, is playing for England. Warwickshire, for example, would like to know why Dermot Reeve played 48 consecutive matches for them before returning from last winter's tour with a stress fracture of the pelvis, while Tim Munton's Old Trafford debut was followed by him pulling out of the following county game (after being fit for the previous 59) with a thigh strain.

It is manna from heaven for the likes of modern-method poo-pooers like Alec Bedser, who used to walk to The Oval rather than drive in a sponsored car, and spent his winters digging up trees as opposed to being wired to some electronic pulse-measuring gadget at Lilleshall. Time to return, perhaps, to the days when fast bowlers were measured by the enormity of their posteriors, drank 10 pints a night, and bowled 1,000 overs a summer in boots weighing half a ton.

What makes the current situation even more depressing is that Headingley is the one venue where English-style medium-pace seam and swing bowling might be more effective that Pakistan's high-velocity artillery. They must win here, where there is a possibility of bowling the opposition out for 70, because at The Oval, there is the probability of the opposition scoring 700.

Ideally, England would like to play six specialist batsmen, four seamers and a spinner, although in order to do this, they would have to ask Alec Stewart to keep wicket in place of Jack Russell. They have done it before, with the so-called 'high-risk' selection against the West Indies at The Oval last summer, and they won.

The situation has now changed, however, in that while this was once thought of as Stewart's only route into the side, he has now made such a success of opening the batting that it would be unfair to ask him to double up. As nothing is unfair in war and cricket (and the two are currently too closely connected for comfort) Stewart may none the less be asked to volunteer.

Personally, I would neither have him keeping wicket nor opening the batting. Stewart's promotion to open has tightened his technique, but he remains an exhilarating strokeplayer, and better suited than Michael Atherton to the problematical No 3 position.

However, whether or not the selectors swap Atherton and Stewart around is less of a problem than what to do about Graeme Hick. His 213 for Worcestershire on Wednesday was not far short of his total for England in 16 visits to the crease, but it is his prowess as a slip catcher, so vital at Headingley, that may earn him yet another stay of execution.

England would also like to play a fully fit Ian Botham at No 7, and Botham's determination to prolong his Test career has seen him shed almost a stone in weight over the past few weeks. Typically, Botham has done it on a diet that makes as little intrusion into his life-style as possible. Fish and champagne.

However, there is more dropping off Botham's body than excess poundage nowadays, and with question marks over both Lewis and Pringle lasting a five-day match, the selectors might be inclined here to look for a younger bowler who spends more time on the field than the physio's couch. England are not famous for their gambling instincts, but Somerset's Andrew Caddick might be worth a punt. Needless to day, no sooner had the thought occurred than Caddick cried off Somerset's current match with flu.

If England did leave out Russell, it would also leave room for a specialist spinner. Ian Salisbury has done pretty well, and is a near certainty for the tour to India, but as Headingley is just the place for a one-off selection, how about Yorkshire's Phil Carrick?

A possible England 12 might be: Gooch, Stewart, Atherton, Smith, Gower, Hick, Botham, Lewis, Pringle, Munton, Caddick, Carrick.