Cricket: Gough medicine vital for England

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ONLY TWO Tests into the summer and already England's selectors are contemplating change. After the debacle at Lord's, where England's batting twice collapsed in spectacular fashion, England clearly need an infusion of something, and tonight's meeting in London does not promise to be a brief one.

Raising flagging spirits will be as vital as getting the side right if England are to bounce back at Old Trafford next week. But if one or two heads roll, there is at least one magic rabbit David Graveney can pull out of his hat and Darren Gough, badly missed at both Lord's and Edgbaston, where his bowling would have at least forced South Africa to follow on, should be fit to return after breaking his finger.

A three-week hiatus is what most bowlers dream about, though not at this stage of the season. Before Allan Donald's lifter did the damage at Edgbaston, Gough's bowling was full of life and rhythm.

A rest can destroy that, and Gough will have a bowl against Cambridge University over the next few days in a bid to rekindle the "feel" he had a few weeks ago. If the pitch at Old Trafford is as green as the one last year - and with all the rain around it could be - England will need Gough close to his best if they are to win the match and square the series.

Gough's return may not guard against middle-order collapses, but his Alka-Seltzer personality is sure to ease at least part of the hangover suffered by Alec Stewart's demoralised side.

An extra fillip, so important when you are looking to level the series, would be the return of the "Gaffer" himself to open the innings. The only time South Africa's bowlers looked inconvenienced was when Stewart and Nasser Hussain belted the second new ball to all corners of Lord's.

Before that happens, and that particular panic button is bound to be pressed sooner or later, Mark Butcher, missing at Lord's with a cracked thumb, must prove his fitness, as must Hussain, who is suffering from a bout of sciatica.

Providing Butcher, who plays in a club game today - Surrey do not have a county match until Wednesday - feels no ill effects, then Steve James, whistled up to replace him at Lord's, will be dropped. So, in all likelihood, will Mark Ealham, who with just two wickets and 24 runs from both Tests, has once again struggled to fill the role of all-rounder.

Genuine all-rounders have long been thin on the ground, and to that end the selectors will probably opt to play an extra bowler rather than one who offers something significant with the bat, like, for example, Ben Hollioake, who has still to wow crowds in the Championship as he has in one-day matches. In any case, England's problems in the last Test stemmed from the moment South Africa, reeling on 46 for 4, made over 250.

Whether the pitch, whose preparation has been hampered by some particularly inclement Manchester weather, will justify two spinners is not yet known, and the selectors will probably pick a squad of 13, six of whom will be front-line bowlers.

Since three of them - Gough, Dominic Cork and Angus Fraser - pick themselves, the other three, if two are to be spinners, will probably be picked from Robert Croft, Ashley Giles, Phil Tufnell, Dean Headley, Chris Silverwood and Ed Giddins.

With each man having a persuasive claim for inclusion, finding the right permutation should keep the panel occupied well past the pudding course. Hopefully the time spent will be worth it later, though as ever, proof will only come when South Africa, never an easy team to beat when they have their noses out in front, are forced to relinquish their lead.

Possible squad: A Stewart, M Atherton, M Butcher, N Hussain, G Thorpe, M Ramprakash, D Cork, R Croft, D Gough, A Fraser, A Giles, D Headley, C Silverwood.