Cricket: Hollioake's chance to come of age

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SUCH HAS been the hectic, unpredictable nature of this summer that the England selectors, following two sobering one-day defeats, must once again turn their attentions back to the Test arena. A one-off Test may seem like small beer after the titanic struggle against South Africa, but England, like their opponents, still have a point or two to prove. If winning is to become a habit teams like Sri Lanka have to beaten, and beaten well.

England have only played five Tests against Sri Lanka since the latter's elevation to Test status almost 20 years ago. The oversight, which borders on arrogance, is hard to justify. These days Sri Lanka, the current World Cup holders, demand to be taken seriously in any form of cricket, and the last time the teams met in a Test, it was Sri Lanka who prevailed by five wickets.

By coincidence, that Test also happened to be Alec Stewart's second as captain, following Graham Gooch's early return to England after a disastrous tour of India. If there is the temptation to experiment, as the selectors did in the recent one-day series, Stewart, a member of the panel, will surely keep them in check.

Providing Angus Fraser's back has recovered - picking him for the triangular was a shrewd way of ensuring he got some rest - and Nasser Hussain's groin has healed, only three positions need be discussed. Of these, the number six and the spinning place are the most important.

In a season virtually dominated by seam bowlers, The Oval has become something of a mecca for spin. If next Thursday's surface is true to type, there would be a case for playing both Robert Croft and Ian Salisbury. However, as neither has threatened to turn so much as a ball let alone a match, England's spinning numbers, unlike their opponents, will probably be limited to one.

Unless Phil Tufnell - the chief architect in the win against Australia at The Oval last year - suddenly finds favour, the selectors are likely to stand by Salisbury, who will at least have the comfort of being on his home ground. If the gamble seems unfounded, remember that it was against Sri Lanka that Shane Warne began his ascent to world domination, after a erratic start to his Test career.

The case for playing Graeme Hick is equally brittle. After Headingley, the England coach, David Lloyd, stated that there was no room for "iffy" characters in Test cricket. If that is the case, Hick, iffy against only the very best, will probably play. Sri Lanka are a combative side but they have no one in the Allan Donald class to make Hick freeze.

If he does and scores a double hundred, are we learning anything we didn't already know? Surely it would be far more useful, as far as England's Ashes campaign is concerned, to find out about the likes of Northamptonshire's Malachy Loye, or to have another look at John Crawley, both of whom have scored heavily throughout the season. As things stand, though, only Hussain's lack of fitness is likely to open the door for them.

Form is a factor that will have to be ignored if Ben Hollioake is to be considered for the all-rounder's place, currently held by Andrew Flintoff. After a breezy debut, Flintoff looked out of his depth at Headingley where he went wicketless and bagged a pair.

Giving Hollioake Jnr another chance is probably not as great a leap of faith as retaining Salisbury, and there is a school of thought who believe him to be similar to David Gower when it comes to motivation. Gower, of course, was totally bored by county cricket and rarely gave it his best shot. If Hollioake is similarly cast, and many say he is, it is time for the selectors to call his bluff. Australia is no place for someone to be found holding a pair of deuces.

POSSIBLE SQUAD: A J Stewart, M A Atherton, M A Butcher, N Hussain (if fit, otherwise J P Crawley), M R Ramprakash, G A Hick, B C Hollioake, D G Cork, D Gough, A R C Fraser, R D B Croft, I D K Salisbury, A D Mullally.