Cricket: Gooch's successor will inherit a muddle: The England selectors will today reveal their new captain but their choice is unlikely to have been unanimous

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SOMETIME during the next 24 hours, and probably this afternoon, the new England cricket captain will be unveiled before the nation's media and invited to outline his strategy for resurrecting a dressing-room fit for heroes. If he is honest, he will say: 'Beyond writing down G A Gooch at the top of the batting order for the next Test, I haven't got the foggiest.'

His investiture will also be accompanied, no doubt, by some stirring words from the England chairman, Ted Dexter, along the lines of: 'Best man for the job, new dawn breaking, every confidence . . . ' If he is honest, he will say: 'We had votes for three different men and this is the compromise we have come up with.'

The fact that the England committee have had no clear collective idea about Graham Gooch's successor (and still did not when they convened their meeting last night) has been perfectly obvious since the middle of last summer. Gooch, much against his inclination, had both arms twisted to go on tour to India, and when the old boy decided to go after the first Test of this summer, the desperate men at the top further played on his sense of duty by delivering a 'don't leave us in the lurch' speech and reappointing him for the rest of the series.

Gooch's agreement was prefaced by the private proviso that he would not hang on once the Ashes were lost, but still they tried to talk him round. Then, when Gooch made a series of exasperated phone calls to Dexter over the weekend, Dexter told him that he would prefer it if Gooch maintained a deafening silence on the issue until 24 hours after the game. Gooch came up with something along the lines of 'you must be joking', whereupon Dexter, apparently so busy that Gooch was left to carry the can on his own, was finally forced into action.

The new captain, therefore, can begin with the certain knowledge that his appointment has been made by confused and reluctant men, who were also sufficiently split on the issue that a tie-break of an eeny-meeny- miny-mo nature cannot entirely be ruled out. These are indeed desperate times for English cricket.

It is probably safe to say that the list of candidates amounted to half a dozen, but that three of those - Kim Barnett, of Derbyshire, Martyn Moxon, of Yorkshire, and Hugh Morris, of Glamorgan - would not have survived the first ballot. None can stake an overpowering claim to a place in the team, and none is considered to be from the egghead school of captaincy that elevated Mike Brearley for a second term of office after Ian Botham's defrocking in 1981.

That was also a decision made by high-powered, sharp-as-a-tack executives, as Brearley can testify. After a succession of phone calls consisting of nothing but a series of pips, Brearley was eventually contacted by the operator, who asked him if he would consider accepting a reverse-charge call from a Mr Alec Bedser. However the call is made this time, it will almost certainly be put through to one of three men: Alec Stewart, Mike Gatting, or Michael Atherton.

Gatting, thought to be the choice of Keith Fletcher, the manager, is struggling on three counts - form, age and, not least, an indifferent disciplinary record during his first term of office. This ended after an encounter with a barmaid during the 1988 West Indies series and Gatting's return - promoted by Dexter and Micky Stewart, Fletcher's predecessor, the following year - was vetoed by the Test and County Cricket Board's cricket chairman, Ossie Wheatley.

Yesterday, Gatting was interviewed on the radio apparently discounting his chances by promoting the case for a younger man and voting for Atherton. However, he also said that it would be wise to look again after the final two Tests of the summer, thereby leaving the door open for himself this winter.

Gatting would qualify on experience, having captained England 23 times, but if the accent is on a similar style to the last one, then it is more likely to be Stewart. Gooch's deputy in India, Stewart belongs very much to the same school of tracksuit leadership and would probably make Gooch look like a shirker in the hard work and preparation departments.

Stewart is also an overtly hard- nosed competitor, gleaned from playing in Western Australia for nine winters, and has a steely temperament and a self-assurance bordering on the cocky (likeably self-effacing though he is off the field). He shares Gooch's hatred of losing, a largely admirable virtue, although he has let this spill over into brushes with authority. On England's last tour to Australia, for example, he was fined for dissent.

If Stewart's image is that of the head prefect, victor ludorum in every sport, then Atherton would be the school swot. However, his quiet studious manner masks an inner self-belief that has left him, among other things, privately brassed off at not being regarded as a decent one-day batsman, and resolutely unprepared to give up his own wicket as when he and Stewart were marooned at the same end during a run-out cock-up in Bombay last winter.

His would be much the lowest-key approach of the three and he is by far the biggest believer in giving more rein to the individual, as opposed to the squaddie-on-the-parade-ground approach. Atherton is the only contender who does not captain his county, but has led England at schoolboy and under-19 level.

Whoever, whatever. England's new broom will extend only to the captaincy as Dexter said yesterday that any criticism directed at him, he made sure he 'did not hear'. He added: 'When the chairman of the TCCB phones up and starts bawling me out then I'll listen, but it's not happened yet.' Forget it. It is hardly worth the cost of the call. As Gooch discovered, getting through to Ted on the phone is not the hard part. It is getting through to him after he has answered it.

(Photograph omitted)