Cricket: Gooch is put on probation

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AS IF the Australians were not already confident enough, England's cricket selectors handed the opposition a few more psychological bonus points yesterday by re-appointing Graham Gooch to the captaincy for the first half only of this summer's six-Test Ashes series.

Gooch's stock dropped appreciably during England's winter whitewash in the sub-continent (he has now presided over five consecutive Test defeats) but there is no outstanding candidate to replace him this summer, and England can scarcely hope to be fully focused on the job in hand if the team is distracted by uncertainty surrounding the captain.

By naming Gooch for the first three Texaco Trophy games and first three Test matches, the selectors have also opened up the possibility of matching their efforts in the 1988 summer against the West Indies, when they hit upon the novel idea of picking four captains in five matches. This innovative thinking did not quite reap its full reward. They lost 4-0.

The five-man England committee of Ted Dexter, AC Smith, Keith Fletcher, Micky Stewart and Ossie Wheatley have correctly identified the fact that they need to find a new captain for next winter's tour to the West Indies, but this attempt to 'leave all options open', as yesterday's statement from chairman Dexter put it, is scarcely likely to instil confidence for what most people consider to be the most prestigious of all England's Test-playing series. Besides which, Gooch of all people would certainly have fallen on his sword had he been making a pig's ear of it, six-match contract or not.

Dexter said yesterday that the England committee had 'emphasised their continued confidence in the quality of Gooch's leadership' (albeit not the quantity) and Gooch claimed to be 'delighted'. This is an emotion he rarely registered last winter, and one which seems to be inappropriate on the back of what is scarcely an unqualified vote of confidence.

Neither does it represent one for the team manager. Fletcher was shaken by many things in India and Sri Lanka, but not from his conviction that Gooch should carry on for the full series this summer, and on the likely assumption that Fletcher has not altered that opinion, he has clearly been outvoted.

The leading contenders for Gooch's job in the Caribbean next winter are Alec Stewart, the current vice-captain, and Mike Gatting, who was in charge until his sacking precipitated the four-captain summer of 1988, and Michael Atherton, whose prospects have faltered somewhat since becoming one of the victims of England's bizarre selection processes last winter.

The bat-maker's art, page 37

Australians tour opener,

County reports, Scoreboard, page 47