If the new captain, Nasser Hussain, can lead his team to victory over New Zealand in the Second Test at Lord's, which begins on Thursday, and thus take a 2-0 lead in the four-match series, he will at least end the millennium on a bright note, if not exactly change the course of history. England, seemingly nerve-wracked by the illustrious heritage that Lord bestowed, have had a dreadful record there for two decades.
In the Eighties seven of the Tests at Lord's were severely hampered by rain, but still England managed to win only three of the 13 matches while losing four. That was with a team who were generally recognised to be more formidable than the present line-up and, not surprisingly, the Nineties have brought no more comfort. England have again won only three from 13 - against India, New Zealand and West Indies - and have lost five.
The last England Lord's victory was back in 1995 when Dominic Cork took seven second-innings wickets in an astonishing debut. Two other men who were in the England side that day will have featured prominently in discussions about the make-up of the side this time. For different reasons, their names will both have given a stiff work-out to the adage about never changing a winning team. They are Darren Gough and Alec Stewart.
To deal with Gough first, if only because it makes a change from talking about Stewart's place in the team and his possible role in it, the Yorkshireman would obviously be one of the first names on the team sheet whatever had happened in the previous match or, come to that, previous 10 matches. He is fast, skilful, wholehearted and lends a dimension to the side which they do not have in his absence.
Gough's calf injury, which ruled him out of the Edgbaston victory, was supposed to have kept him out of this Lord's Test, which might have been convenient for all concerned. But he returned for Yorkshire last week, apparently suffering no ill-effects. The chairman of selectors, David Graveney, went to see him in the county match against Warwickshire at Birmingham and observed afterwards: "There is a difference between being free of pain and match fit." While this might suggest that Gough continues to suffer some discomfort it should also be borne in mind that no fast bowler anywhere ever gets up in the morning without experiencing some reminder of his hard craft.
If Gough truly is fit he must play, but it may be sensible to let him have a longer opportunity to recover for the pitfalls that a five-day Test can present. Should he be in the team, Graveney and his panel would then be left with the thankless prospect of leaving out the hero of Edgbaston, the man of the match himself, the 99 not out kid, Alex Tudor.
Of course, he won the match with his batting on the third day but his bowling on the first two had not been in the same street as the other seamers. Tudor's omission would mystify a large section of the public who were uplifted by his exploits, but Graveney said: "It's a tough school and he would have to learn in it. He was in the side for his bowling and not his batting." This does not make the condundrum much easier to solve, however, because Tudor is quick, genuinely so, and has the artillery to become a potent Test bowler. One of the ways he will do that is by playing in Test matches. England need to win now, but they must have one eye on South Africa this winter and Australia in 2001, not to mention West Indies in between.
Tudor will surely be in the squad at least. Nothing is now certain regarding his county colleague, Stewart. He will not go quietly, of course, or at least he will not go with the selectors being quiet. As usual his ghost will be stalking their meeting, inviting copious opinions. Captain, wicketkeeper and batsman only a short while back (though never, as Graveney, pointed out, captain, wicketkeeper and opening batsman in a Test) he is in imminent danger of losing the lot.
He was retained in the side as opener for the First Test with big backing from Hussain. Stewart failed in both innings and the poor fellow is struggling for touch. This may be temporary, but at 35 that word takes on a different timespan. As Duke Ellington put it, he got it bad and that ain't good.
Stewart might not have done himself any favours in continuing to garner sympathy from the selectors. Knowing he would have a place at Lord's as opener or nothing, he opted to bat at six and keep wicket for Surrey in the Championship last week. That might have been putting his county first but it was an odd way of coming to terms with his tricky position. Hard to contemplate that he already feared the worst.
If Stewart is replaced it will not be by Michael Atherton. The former captain and opener might have scored a huge unbeaten double century, 268 to be exact, last week, the first of his career, but the selectors will want more proof of his fitness than that. A triple century, a quadruple or even a quintuple might clinch it but they have in mind more a run of matches to show that Atherton's back, if not back, has not gone missing altogether.
What the double century demonstrated, of course, and bless him for it at 31, is that he should still have much to offer, that Atherton is not quitting. It had begun to seem that there might be another pal in the press box but it seems that when Atherton says he prefers playing he means it. But not for England yet. It should be Stewart to open at Lord's but Darren Maddy, Michael Vaughan and the one who is in the best nick of the lot, Steve James, should also stay close to their teletext screen.
Three Glamorgan bowlers (the county is not playing), Darren Thomas, Dean Cosker, and Simon Jones, son of former England fast bowler, Jeff, will join the squad at nets. This is a part of the praiseworthy process of giving potential future candidates experience of the England camp. According to Graveney, Jones has "got some wheels" which refers not to his possession of a car but to his speed. The last time England led 2-0 in a series at home was against New Zealand in 1978. In those days Thomas Lord was at peace.
Possible squad: N Hussain (capt), A J Stewart, M A Butcher, G P Thorpe, M R Ramprakash, A Habib, C M W Read (wkt), A R Caddick, A J Tudor, A D Mullally, P C R Tufnell, C E W Silverwood.Reuse content