Cricket: High-profile victims of England cull

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The Independent Online
SUDDENLY THE piece of paper, supposedly blank after the third Test at Old Trafford, is rumoured to be full of new names.

This could be good news, providing they have been chosen after due care and attention by the three selectors, but there are worrying rumours that others, such as the chairman of the England and Wales Cricket Board, Lord MacLaurin, and the chairman of the Management committee, Brian Bolus, have been sticking their oar in as well. A little guidance from above should never be scoffed at, but their fingerprints should be found around the throats of the counties, not on the team sheet.

Suddenly, too, it looks like it was better not to have been tainted with the season's bad odour of losing to New Zealand, though the logic of this, like most things about English cricket, is dubious. Had Michael Atherton and Graham Thorpe seen England to victory at the Oval, a different mood and squad would have prevailed. Instead, word on the street is that some high profile names - if that is not a contradiction in the current climate - may not be on flight SAA01 to Johannesburg on 27 October when the Test and one-day squads are announced this morning.

Three months is not long in which to have your world turned upside down. If Nasser Hussain accepted the captaincy with the idealism of one new to an important job, it is surely gone now. Yet, as after any disaster, and this past summer has been as catastrophic for English cricket as sport can be, the means to recovery have to be swift, obvious and show signs of change.

Hussain understands this and together with the team coach Duncan Fletcher - not salaried until 1 October - and the chairman of selectors, David Graveney, he knows the 17-strong tour party must reflect it too. A blend will be important, with the relative forgiveness and ruthlessness of those choosing as vital as the mix of youth and experience of those chosen.

The defeat by New Zealand, a source of widespread public disquiet, was mainly due to the repeated failure of the batting. For PR purposes, if not cricketing ones, victims are required. With Graham Thorpe's decision to spend the winter at home providing one vacancy for a rugged character like Chris Adams, whose star has risen suddenly this last fortnight, the selectors need only make room for one or two more thrusters.

The rules of sacrifice, at least on the high veld where England are due to play two of their five Tests, dictate that the old and hesitant are dispatched. This suggests the most vulnerable are Alec Stewart and Mark Ramprakash, even though Stewart appeared to be close to his old self with is match-saving 83 in the third Test.

With Chris Read, unready for Tests but already promised a place on tour by Graveney, the feeling is that Stewart must keep wicket and bat at No 4 if he is to justify his place at the age of 36. As the Surrey man is thought to be less than keen about the first part of his brief, the selectors may be tempted to turn to Somerset's Rob Turner.

Perceptions change by the day in sport, but some facts remain unchanged. Stewart is the best wicket-keeper in the country and a fine batsmen if short of his commanding best. He has also given sterling service and broadened his back in the past to carry unreasonable burdens as captain, wicketkeeper and top six batsman. A consummate professional, his attitude in the dressing- room while not effusive is still a good one for young players to note.

Ramprakash, highly regarded by his county peers, but over-anxious about failure on the big stage, is another under pressure. Like so many aspects of English cricket, the new dawn that many felt would follow his first (and to date his only) Test century in Barbados proved to be a false one.

A fine technician, the Middlesex captain has been one of England's most consistent batsmen of the past 18 months, averaging around 40. Mind you, accomplished and one-paced 30's and 40's do not win Test matches and the selectors may feel that others deserve a chance.

With Mark Butcher set to return on the basis that he has a decent record against Allan Donald and co, and Darren Maddy given longer to overcome the limitations of his dominant bottom hand, the spare batting place may go to Ben Smith, Nick Knight or Michael Vaughan. All are determined cricketers and at least two could find themselves in the one-dayers should they fail to make the Test squad.

Andrew Flintoff, primarily a batsman who bowls rather than an all-rounder proper, is another likely to go, unless Fletcher feels he can get something extra from Graeme Hick in the new millennium. For all his spark, Ronnie Irani looks still looks short of Test class with the ball, but then so too does Gavin Hamilton, a name now being dropped more often than England openers.

Some exclusions will appear harsher than others. Phil Tufnell with 14 wickets in the series may appear to be a certainty, but only because statistics distort as much as they define. As the sole and, therefore, frontline spinner this summer, a high proportion of Tufnell's wickets ought to be batsmen in the top six. Only two were.

South Africa, beaten without his help a year ago, is not a place where pitches spin much. As Tufnell barely turns a ball, let alone a Test series, these days, the option will probably be to go for someone who can hold a bat. Ashley Giles and Graeme Swann are the most likely candidates, although the most talented young spinner in county cricket is felt to be Northamptonshire's Michael Davies.

Both Darren Gough and Alex Tudor will be presumed fit unless proved otherwise in the coming weeks and will join Andy Caddick, Alan Mullally and Dean Headley. Gough is an effusive character who can lift his side with ball as well as banter and his return is crucial.

Normally, five pace bowlers should be enough, although with fitness a factor, as well as six provincial games, an extra one, Chris Silverwood rather than Ed Giddins, who recently tore an inter-costal, may be required.

Either that or an all-rounder willing to bowl.

POSSIBLE SQUAD

ENGLAND (to tour South Africa): *N Hussain, M A Atherton, D L Maddy, M A Butcher, A J Stewart, C J Adams, M P Vaughan, A Flintoff, C M W Read, A R Caddick, A J Tudor, D Gough, D W Headley, A D Mullally, A F Giles, G P Swann, C E W Silverwood or G M Hamilton.

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