Cricket: England's old guard await the call

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The Independent Online
RUBIK'S CUBE and Fermat's Last Theorem are as nothing compared with the conundrums facing David Graveney and his panel when they meet this morning. At one Test apiece the series is still there for England's taking, though any team proposing to make as many changes for the third Test at Old Trafford as they are cannot claim to be in control.

A month is a long time in sport and if the series began with a spirit of adventure, a sobering defeat at Lord's, compounded by the broken digit suffered by England's captain, Nasser Hussain, is sure to force some of those ideals into early retirement. Instead, the selectors look set to remove the the mothballs and head back down memory lane with the likes of Michael Atherton, Graeme Hick and Peter Such all likely to be recalled.

First on the agenda, of what promises to be a convoluted meeting, will be the return of Atherton, after the completion of just four first-class matches this season.

The Lancashire man, notching up a career-best 268 at Blackpool as well as one-day runs for his county, has been in fine fettle with the bat. Yet form is not the issue here, and it is his back, having badly compromised him over the last 12 months of his Test career, which is the main consideration.

So far, after specialists injected a lesion in his lower back with cortisone, it has held up well in the handful of games he has so far managed for his county. Yet Test matches are tense and arduous affairs, and you sense that both he and the selectors would ideally have waited a while longer before returning him to Test match duty.

Ideals are fine in a perfect world, but one of the reasons for rushing his return may be the absence of Hussain, who is rated only 50-50 for Thursday's Test after unluckily breaking the middle finger of his right hand while fielding last Saturday.

According to Graveney, a stand-in captain will be decided at today's meeting, though the decision will be kept in camera until Hussain rules on his fitness. It is a decision that might conceivably be left as late as the morning of the match.

With the pitch at Old Trafford set to take spin, Atherton would be an obvious choice, though he may be unwilling to accept the role on his home ground.

He is a cussed soul and having allowed the selectors to persuade him to go against his better judgement in the past - such as captaining the last tour of the West Indies - he will probably not be enticed again.

His personal doubts aside, he is undoubtably the best man for what should be, at most, a one-off job. The probable inclusion of Such as a second spinner will require an experienced operator to pull the strings. Graham Thorpe and Mark Butcher, the other two men in the frame, are estimable cricketers but their experience of captaincy is limited.

Such, with two good performances in Australia to his credit, should get the nod over other worthies like Graeme Swann and Michael Vaughan, simply because he is the next best spinner after Phil Tufnell.

England have been guilty of fudging on too many occasions and while Swann and Vaughan may offer far more with the bat, Such is the man should the priority be wickets.

Less understandable would be the return of Hick to bat at six in place of Aftab Habib, the latest in a long line of gifted county players to have been found out by Test cricket. Should Hick get the nod in front of Leicestershire's Darren Maddy, it will be the eighth time he has been recalled, and a clear case of better the devil you know than the one you don't.

Apart from more runs, the selectors would like to play a balanced bowling attack of three seamers and two spinners. With Alex Tudor still unfit, Dean Headley will retain his place in the squad, which could end up being 14-strong should the likes of Chris Silverwood also be included.

One way of achieving that balance would be to give Alec Stewart the gloves. In truth, it is a move that should have been made at the start of the series before Chris Read had got a hand and a half to his chance of the big time.

In any case, youth should be given more than a fleeting chance to prove itself and Read's plucky 37 in the second innings may just be the impetus the 20-year old keeper needs to settle.

If anything, it is the selectors as well as their employers, the England and Wales Cricket Board, who are at fault for not appearing to take New Zealand seriously. A view supported by the absence of the coach, Duncan Fletcher, whose current employers, Glamorgan, should have been compensated in full the moment he accepted he England job.

The cat is now out of the bag and what appeared to be a gentle series to get back on track after a disastrous World Cup is taking on the proportions of a horror story. "England - The Reckoning". See it live for five days at Old Trafford next week.

ENGLAND SQUAD (Possible) v New Zealand, third Test (Old Trafford, Thur): N Hussain (capt), M A Butcher, M A Atherton, A J Stewart, G P Thorpe, M R Ramprakash, G A Hick, C M W Read, A R Caddick, D W Headley, A D Mullally, P C R Tufnell, P M Such.