Cricket: Hick and Salisbury to determine Ashes fate

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GONE ARE the days when a one-off Test called for one-off selections. With the Ashes beckoning, David Graveney and his panel have kept alterations to a minimum and providing Nasser Hussain is fit, Ben Hollioake included in place of Andrew Flintoff is the only change from the side that won at Headingley.

In some ways, the selectors have included in order to exclude and some players such as Ian Salisbury and Graeme Hick know that Sri Lanka at The Oval represents the last chance saloon to be involved in the noble brawl Down Under.

Confronting players with their future in this way, does not always work. Depending on the character involved, a final chance could be seen as either stick or carrot. But if responses will not be known until after Thursday, at least minds will be concentrated.

Of the two under the microscope, it is Hick who arguably has the easier task. For one thing, Sri Lanka's bowling is not as strong as their batting and unless Paul Brind and the Surrey groundstaff are totally immune to outside pressure, the pitch will be hard and bouncy, suiting pace rather than spin. On his home ground Salisbury may find he has to aim at the footholes to get any purchase.

The selectors persistence with Hick, a perennial dilemma for much of the past decade, is perhaps not as flawed as it looks. By no means Australia- bound, he is, however, along with John Crawley, one the most versatile batsmen around. In short, an ideal reserve providing Graham Thorpe is back to full fitness.

Crawley, who is on standby for Hussain, is a fine player of spin and would perhaps be ahead in the pecking order if Shane Warne's fitness was guaranteed.

As it is, and with Hussain having no more than a 50-50 chance of recovering from his groin strain, he may get a chance to press his claim irrespective of Warne's recovery rate. If he does it will be at six, not three, which will be taken by Hick.

As England's lone slow bowler, Salisbury owes his selection to the paucity of top- flight spinners. "The spin cupboard is thin at present," agreed Graveney, England's chairman of selectors, a situation that could cost England dear if the Ashes is played in scorching weather.

Explaining the reason behind Salisbury's inclusion, after two poor Tests against South Africa, Graveney said: "As far as wrist spin goes, Ian is really the only one and we felt it prudent to give him one more crack. He knows what is expected and we want to see him bowl as he does in county cricket for Surrey."

As most Sri Lankan batsmen appear to be weaned on spin rather than milk, Salisbury's task, despite the comfort of familiar surroundings, will not be an easy one.

Like a man forced to walk the plank, his options are receding and every time he gets hit for four, it will be like another rapier jab from behind. In such potentially trying circumstances, one cannot but wish the fellow well. If the big occasion has held both Hick and Salisbury back, it is the main reason why Hollioake the younger has been picked in the absence of any sustained form for Surrey.

"We felt we needed an all-rounder who was a stronger bowler," said Graveney, "and there were times in the last Test against South Africa when we looked undermanned bowling wise.

"As one of the players targeted to have specialised coaching from Bob Cottam and Graham Gooch, Ben's bowling has come on a lot. He also batted well in Sri Lanka on the A tour last winter and he knows most of their bowlers."

As most players will tell you, timing is everything in sport and unless Hollioake makes a complete hash of the opportunity he is probably certain to tour Australia. Not so Flintoff, who following a rough introduction at the hands of South Africa will probably have to settle for an A tour this winter. Unlike Hick and Salisbury, at least he has a safety net.

ENGLAND XIII (for Test against Sri Lanka, The Oval, starting 27 August):

A J Stewart (capt, wkt) Age 35 Tests 80; M A Atherton 30, 84; M A Butcher 26, 13; N Hussain 30, 34; J P Crawley 26, 25; M R Ramprakash 28, 28; G A Hick 32 48; B C Hollioake 20, 1; D G Cork 27, 24; I D K Salisbury 28, 11; D Gough 27, 25; A R C Fraser 33, 43; A D Mullally 29, 9.