Cricket: Hollioake's dual challenge

Derek Pringle expects England to spring few surprises in their tour choices
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It was not so long ago that selecting a team for the West Indies involved little more than picking the pluckiest players, arming them with chest guards and medical insurance, and wishing them good luck. With a fiery battery of fast bowlers, and pitches to match, touring the West Indies was a test that often went beyond mere sport.

During the 1980s, expectations of an England success were virtually non-existent, a fate that only changed seven years ago when Graham Gooch's inexperienced team came a downpour away from overturning accepted orthodoxy - that of West Indian invincibility - by winning a Test series in the Caribbean.

So far such a victory has eluded all but Australia, who won there two years ago, a situation that this winter's touring team - selected tonight and announced from Lord's at 10am tomorrow, along with the one-day squad for Sharjah and the England A team - will be hoping to emulate early next year.

Before that England play in a one-day tournament in Sharjah without Michael Atherton. Instead, while Adam Hollioake leads an athletic and versatile side, in what amounts to early preparation for the 1999 World Cup, England's Test captain will be spending his time in the nets with Gooch, honing both his technique and mindset after a mediocre summer.

Hollioake's challenge will be to turn around England's miserable one- day record abroad - currently three wins against 15 defeats in the last two years. It will not be easy against Pakistan, India and the West Indies. But, with hungry players like the two Browns, Alistair and Dougie, as well as the younger Hollioake, Ben, to complement Alec Stewart, Graeme Hick and Mark Ealham, England should provide a force flexible and energetic enough to be reckoned with. It may not please the traditionalists, but in some ways it is more important for the popularity of the game in this country that England win the World Cup rather than a hard-fought Test series abroad.

For most, however, winning in the West Indies is only second to taking the Ashes for an England captain and his team. But while beating Australia in thrilling fashion at The Oval was undoubtedly a boon the real reason Atherton wanted to remain as captain was to lead an England side to triumph in the Caribbean.

Indeed, until he wins a five-match series against the big three (Australia, the West Indies and Pakistan) he knows his will be a career unfulfilled.

He also knows, as his predecessor Gooch did, that you need disciplined and strong-willed cricketers to combat the mercurial brilliance of a team, which if ridden with inconsistency, can still produce match-turning performances with both bat and ball.

Fortunately, Gooch is now on hand as a selector and his voice, along with that of Atherton, is likely to be the dominant one shaping this winter's touring party.

With 16 places to fill, most of the discussion will probably centre around the early-order batting. In the past, three openers were usually selected, a decision presumably based on the theory that the West Indies pacemen tended to fracture more bones when the ball was new and hard.

However, the situation has changed fairly dramatically in the past few years. No longer are there the bare concrete-hard pitches of yore. Indeed, most are now sluggish and low bouncing, a fact borne out by the four dilatory draws played out when India toured there a few months ago.

Nevertheless, ageing veterans like Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh are still capable of the occasional stinging bursts like the ones they produced at Port of Spain and Sabina Park respectively on the last tour. They were spells that broke England's spirit, and in the case of the one at Sabina, their captain's helmet as well.

As the oak door protecting the middle-order from exposure to the new ball, opening batsmen are vital. Unless Alec Stewart is relieved of his wicketkeeping duties and restored as Atherton's opening partner - a move that would see Jack Russell back in the side and batting at seven - a choice of two from either Mark Butcher, Nick Knight and Steve James, will probably have to be made.

As part of the triumphant11 from The Oval, Butcher ought to go yet his stock, despite a gradual improvement over the summer, seems to have fallen. It is a problem Knight, the previous left-hander in residence, also suffers from. Unhappily for Knight, a prolonged absence due to a series of broken fingers has not allowed him the time to work out his technical problems.

With only a handful of games under his belt, the selectors will probably feel he needs longer to sort out his shortcomings. Time that Knight will probably find, as captain of the forthcoming A team tour to Kenya and Sri Lanka.

James, this season's leading run-scorer, is having a fine season with Glamorgan. Unfortunately his tendency to favour the off-side will not help his cause in a part of the world where the majority of dismissals take place between gully and wicketkeeper and he is more likely to find himself opening in Nairobi and Colombo than Kingston.

With John Crawley the most obvious and deserving choice to be added to the middle-order that played at The Oval, the scope for springing any surprises is limited.

Providing Darren Gough, Andy Caddick and Dean Headley do not injure themselves in Sharjah, only the remaining pace bowling slots are likely to cause much debate, with the capricious talents of Dominic Cork, now fully recovered from his problematic groin, and Ashley Cowan perhaps shading the comforting dependability of Angus Fraser.

However, if Adam Hollioake is going to bat at seven, England might be better served by picking Warwickshire's Dougie Brown as the all-rounder. His improved bowling would allow England, should the need arise, to play both Phil Tufnell and Robert Croft without compromising the overall balance of the side.

Possible England tour parties


M A Atherton, N Hussain, A J Stewart, M A Butcher, G P Thorpe, M R Ramprakash, J P Crawley, A J Hollioake or D R Brown, R C Russell, R D B Croft, P C R Tufnell, D Gough, A R Caddick, D W Headley, D G Cork, A P Cowan.


A J Hollioake, A J Stewart, N V Knight, G A Hick, A D Brown, G P Thorpe, B C Hollioake, D R Brown, M A Ealham, R D B Croft, A F Giles, A R Caddick, D Gough, D W Headley.