Business has been conducted as usual this year in Sri Lanka. England A, managed by Graham Gooch, coached by Mike Gatting and captained by Nick Knight, last week completed a 2-0 win in the unofficial Test series, exhibiting a tenacity and a boldness exactly in line with their predecessors. Despite rotating selection and some inexperienced cricketers they have kept going when the cause seemed hopeless, they have positively sought victory and they have been rewarded.
Since second-string tours began in 1990, England A have now played 19 Tests, won seven, drawn nine and lost only two (both against a West Indies team containing one Courtney Walsh six years ago). The first question arising, to which the answer stubbornly remains concealed, is concerned with what happens when they make the final step up to the proper stuff.
The second question is the other perennial: who has done enough to merit promotion? Of the present senior England squad Mike Atherton, Nasser Hussain, John Crawley, Mark Ramprakash, Robert Croft and perhaps above all, Graham Thorpe, who made four A tours before becoming the world's No 3 rated batsman, all benefited from the slightly lesser experience.
The three names on Gatting's lips after the unexpected win in the Third Test were Darren Maddy, Ashley Giles and, not surprisingly, Ben Hollioake. It is Hollioake, inevitably, on whom most of the attention has been focused. Last summer he made his Test debut, the first teenager to play for England since Brian Close. Asking him to regain the Ashes was a tad too much.
Since then he has turned 20 and more significantly has made his maiden and second first-class centuries. Both were against Sri Lanka, both were in matches that England won. The first pulled the team from the mire of 69 for 4, the second was a display of sustained, clean hitting.
"He has has done extremely well," said Gatting. "I have been very impressed by the way he set about this tour. His approach, his strokes, he's progressed all right.
"As a bowler too he's done us a job. Conditions in Sri Lanka haven't exactly been helpful but he's hit the pitch hard. He's a player who could make a lot of people very, very happy."
Before becoming carried away with reckless enthusiasm, Gatting said that Maddy, too, had developed. "He's listened, he's got in and he's gone on and he can't learn enough. He's always ready to talk about his game. What both he and Ben have to do is go back to their counties and build on this, make sure they have really solid seasons."
Hollioake scored 424 runs in the three Tests for an average of 94.5 and, asked to open the bowling as well, took seven wickets at 38 runs each. If Maddy's most spectacular efforts were on the initial Kenyan leg of the tour he made three half-centuries in the Tests and failed only in the last-day run chase of the Third.
But it was Ashley Giles, the tall Warwickshire left-arm spin bowler, for whom Gatting reserved his highest, though still understandably guarded, praise. "He has played as the conditions dictated. The pitches have often helped him but he's taken advantage. He has worked really hard both to get fit and lose weight and it's stood him in tremendous stead.
"He's helped Dean Cosker, a different type of left-arm slow bowler and Dean has learned by watching him. Giles's runs have been valuable and I would say he might be ready to have a go in Tests." Important words, those, from a selector.
Giles took 13 Test wickets, none showing his perseverance more than his 5 for 43 when the Third seemed to be petering to a draw. Gatting's fondest memory, though, will be of the one-wicket win in the Second Test which almost made recent happenings in Trinidad look like a routine day at the office. It was Giles with last man Paul Hutchison who saw England home.
Gatting appears content. It has been occasionally a traumatic tour with Sri Lanka beset by Tamil bombing ("Goochy has coped magnificently") and young players such as Hutchison, Cosker, Andrew Flintoff and Chris Read have all learned. None of the party returns a failure. And now we await the next stage.Reuse content