Cricket: Illingworth preparing to impose his authority: Atherton's dinner date to signal end of the captain-manager closed shop as England selectors face challenge from New Zealand

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The Independent Online
MICHAEL ATHERTON sits down over the dinner table this evening for his first Test selection meeting under the chairmanship of Raymond Illingworth, and it may be closer to the cheeseboard than the soup before he gets a word in edgeways. Illy likes a chap with strong opinions, just as long as they correspond with his own.

After five years of relative failure under the hands-off chairmanship of Ted Dexter, Illingworth's succession marks a significant change of direction. If Ted had something to say, it would have been along the lines of Corporal Jones in Dad's Army - 'permission to speak, sir?' - but in Raymond's case, pauses for breath will be few and far between.

In Australia, the captain (along with the team manager) does not get a vote at all, and has to tune in to Teletext along with everyone else to find out who's been picked. However, while the England captain still gets a significant input, Illingworth's arrival signals the end to the captain-manager closed shop, which began with Mike Gatting and Micky Stewart in 1986.

The first item on Illy's blueprint, partly because New Zealand are perceived as weak enough to take the risk, is five specialist batsmen only. Gone, for the moment, are the days when Graham Gooch's high-pitched lament would dominate the meeting - 'you can't win a Test if don't get enough runs' - to be replaced instead by a gruff Yorkshire growl: 'Let's get some boogers in there who might bowl 'em out.'

Much has been made of nets being cast far and wide, with selectors in permanent danger of piles and indigestion from ploughing up and down motorways and dashing in and out of Little Chefs. However, from the names bandied about so far, the TCCB treasurer will be a touch surprised if Illy's first expenses claim involves anything more than a couple of bus fares from his front door in Farsley.

Darren Gough would probably have had the opportunity to graduate from the one-day to the Test team but for confirming his arrival as an England fast bowler by immediately getting injured, and Craig White and Richard Stemp have also emerged as serious candidates for Trent Bridge on Thursday. Once again, Yorkshire offers prospects for career advancement, as opposed to a venue for committee members looking for a fight.

White has made a good enough start to the season to become the latest candidate for the all-rounder's spot, while Stemp partially owes his candidature to Philip Tufnell's off-field problems.

If either or both are selected in what will probably be a 13-man squad, it will either be perceived as a refreshing willingness to plunge in with new blood, or make people wonder, in the absence of more familiar feet on the ladder, whether all the cash invested in A tours is really worth the bother.

Illingworth is a self-confessed proponent of a 'balanced' attack, which in broad terms means two spinners. Peter Such, unluckily (and rather crassly in view of the fact that the West Indies picked nothing but left-handers) missed out on the winter tour, but is almost certain to be preferred to Hampshire's Shaun Udal, who has perhaps unfairly been pigeon-holed as a one-day specialist. This is usually a euphemism for a spinner who doesn't spin it.

Ian Salisbury would provide balance with leg spin, although he has not made an impressive start to the season, and while New Zealand must be starting to get shirty about being written off as a kind of elongated net practice before South Africa, this would be as good a time as any to take a look at Stemp.

The pace bowling options barely exist given the number of injuries (which include Gough, Andrew Caddick, Martin McCague and Dominic Cork) and the only two bowlers who will not prompt long periods of doodling and crossing out on the jotter this evening are Angus Fraser and Mark Ilott.

Devon Malcolm had barely taken a wicket until yesterday, and if Chris Lewis is intending to pose in the nude again this summer, it will probably be for The Lancet. He missed Nottinghamshire's Benson and Hedges Cup tie this week with flu, and after bowling only half a dozen of 117 overs against Derbyshire on Thursday, spent yesterday morning in the pavilion with a side strain.

There seems certain to be a change of wicketkeeper, from Jack Russell to Stephen Rhodes, especially as Illingworth last week described Rhodes as 'the man in possession'. On the back of one Texaco game, this was a bit rich, but the length of Rhodes' tenure will ultimately depend on how many runs he makes.

The batting, at least in terms of selecting six, should not create too many problems. Gooch remains the best in the country, making a further nonsense of the pitiful 'old age' excuse when David Gower was omitted from the last India tour, and is pencilled in for the No 4 slot. Robin Smith is earmarked for No 3, which leaves Graeme Hick and Graham Thorpe.

Thorpe is entitled to feel aggrieved at being left out of the one Texaco to be played, and will feel even more entitled if, after providing the one youthful success of last winter, he is left out of the Test XI. Here at last may be Illy's invitation for Atherton to make a decision. 'Here's six batsmen, I'll leave it up to you which one to chuck out.'

(Photograph omitted)