Cricket: First test of character for Atherton in terms of selection: Captain has another battle on his hands over choice for second Test against South Africa starting at Headingley on Thursday

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IT IS perhaps just as well that Law 42 (Unfair Play) does not apply to picking a team as well as picking a seam, because the England selectors are almost certain to be accused of tampering with it after their meeting this evening. After the first Test debacle at Lord's, the finger - dirty or otherwise - will have to be pointed somewhere.

Raymond Illingworth is a thrifty character and putting his hand in his pocket is something he has rarely been accused of. However, if the chairman of selectors is invited to tell anyone what he has in his pocket this evening, it will be interesting to see whether it is a handkerchief, or Michael Atherton. The obvious inference from the events of the past week is that Illingworth has gained authority, while Atherton has lost it, and Atherton's first test of character will be to demonstrate he still has a powerful voice in selection.

This is doubly so in that the player most in danger of losing his place is the one Illingworth plucked from near obscurity at the start of the season, Craig White. One of Illingworth's great strengths (and weakenesses) as a cricketer, as it was with Ian Botham, is a reluctance to admit to making a mistake - but in the short term at least, even he might share Atherton's view that White is currently not worth his place.

He might be, of course, if Atherton showed any awareness that White is on the field. When the television cameras home in on Atherton at Headingley, and there is the vague suspicion they just might, he is unlikely to be spotted keeping the ball dry for White's benefit.

There is also a growing feeling among the selectors (as there has been with everyone bar the selectors) that a left-hander is now required in the top-order batting and that Graham Thorpe should now reclaim the place unfairly taken away from him after the West Indies tour. Apart from dropping Graeme Hick, and there has been a greater reluctance to do that than give White a bowl, the obvious solution is to look at an all-rounder who is not being employed as one.

Whatever the decision on White, there is one copper-bottomed alteration to be made after Lord's and that is to stop mucking around with the crass notion that the world's best opening batsman is best employed wandering in at No 3 or No 5. Gooch and Atherton are, statistically, up there with the great opening pairings in Test history and only England, in all probability, would have hit upon the brilliant idea of getting them almost as far apart in the order as possible.

Alec Stewart would prefer to open, but England's performances do not warrant accommodation of personal preference. Stewart's yoke, the wicketkeeping gloves, have now been cast off and his bristling confidence and fluent strokeplay are ideally suited to No 3. In fact, he is probably England's most natural No 3 since Ted Dexter.

The problems with the bowling surround injuries to Darren Gough and Angus Fraser, neither of whom is playing in the current round of county matches. Andrew Caddick has been ruled out on fitness grounds and one likely addition to the squad (possibly of 14) is Warwickshire's Tim Munton.

There is no shortage of candidates - Martin McCague, Alan Igglesden, Mark Illott, Joey Benjamin, Steve Watkin - but where Headingley Tests are concerned, it is the accurate bowlers in bowler- friendly conditions who normally get the nod ahead of the tearaways.

The one drawback is that the usual Test pitch was dug up two winters ago and replaced against Australia last summer. Graham Gooch, the captain, said at the time: 'We win twice in a row on a pitch and then they dig it up. Why? Better ask the TCCB.' By Friday afternoon, Australia were 613 for 4.

This being the case, a spinner will certainly be chosen as an insurance policy, but spinners rarely arrive at Headingley without keeping the car engine running. The last English spinner to take a wicket in a Headingley Test was Phil Edmonds, in 1987. Edmonds, by the way, used to rub his bowling hand in the dirt to keep it dry.