Cricket: England stand by their chosen ones

Stephen Brenkley says Graveney and co will continue to be as good as their word

These are strange times in the England cricket team. Not only are the selectors saying that players will be given time to settle in once they have become the chosen ones, which has happened before, but they also appear to mean it, which too often has not.

After spending two Ashes series in England handing out caps as if they were no more significant than pints in a brewery (so confirming that they were incapable of organising a booze-up in the same place) England are now in danger of disappointing legions of county players who might otherwise have had a Test or so.

The new policy is surely the wisest. The art of selection is to alight on your best team and stick with them, rather than perpetually casting around in the hope not so much of turning sows' ears into silk purses as entire herds of swine. It helps enormously that England are 1-0 up with four to play - which means the destination of the Ashes cannot be decided until at least the Fifth Test - but that in itself may be no accident.

There is a calm, reassuring look about the present panel which is contemporary and experienced at once. David Graveney and his lieutenants, Graham Gooch and Mike Gatting - the G-men - have imbued their players with confidence because they have guaranteed them their support. So simple, so effective. Instead of using 29 players, as in 1989, and 24 more, as in 1993, in utterly vain bids to recapture the little urn there is every possibility, barring injury or disaster, that England will use as few as 15 this summer.

For the Third Test, which begins at Old Trafford on Thursday, assuming that Manchester, of all places, can be released from the grip of rain in time, changes are again likely to be minimal. The batting order will almost certainly be unaltered. Considering that England were bowled out for 77 at Lord's, this might appear odd. But that was a permissible (just) blip in a graph which shows the batting as a unit has been growing gradually upward these past two years.

Mark Butcher, as the left-handed opener - which has become an essential part of England's game plan - has yet to convince that he is properly structured in mind and body for Test cricket. True, he made an increasingly composed 87 last week, but he was the embodiment of apprehension at the start. But last summer Butcher was in commanding form - in the winter in Australia he was England A's most complete batsman - so he deserves to have bought himself a little more time.

There have been some mutterings about the contributions of John Crawley but he is a class act in the unsettling No 6 position. If they were forced to look around for an extra batsman (Nasser Hussain will need a cortisone injection in an arm) they would go no further than Mark Ramprakash. Selection panels of an earlier incarnation may have nodded in that direction before and been let down but the simple truth is that Ramprakash is the most in-form batsman in the country. His career may yet be adequately fulfilled.

It is difficult to think of a time since Bob Willis and Ian Botham were around when the bowling looked quite so established. Darren Gough and Andrew Caddick, in their differing ways, are tigerish, Robert Croft, with a career bowling average which still approaches 40, somehow looks born for Tests.

Old Trafford may not be the place for Devon Malcolm, who suffered a bruised toe at Southend, but nor perhaps should it be the place for the much- mentioned Mike Smith of Gloucestershire. The left-arm late swinger has taken bundles of wickets but there are several factors against his selection. First, it is a tall order to ask a debutant with no international experience to come into a delicately poised Ashes series to make a decisive contribution. Second, he will be 30 in October and this is surely not the age at which New England should be offering first Test caps. Third, England have had little luck with left-arm seam bowlers in the past two years, picking and discarding Paul Taylor, Mark Ilott, Simon Brown and Alan Mullally.

On the theory that A team players should graduate, Dean Headley, if he can confirm his fitness, should be in the box seat. But at Old Trafford what about a home player with experience, Peter Martin?

The upshot of England's selectorial discussions is likely to be that Australia will have more difficulty picking their side for once, with Michael Bevan and thus the side's balance under particular scrutiny. That is a little victory in itself but nobody should fool themselves that the more significant victories will remain other than hard to come by.

Possible squad: Atherton (capt); Butcher, Stewart, Hussain, Thorpe, Crawley, Ealham, Croft, Gough, Caddick, Malcolm, Headley, Tufnell.

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