Cricket: Illingworth's forward plan starts with a backward glance: Thoughts of hard battles ahead against the old enemy prompt England to consider recalling their warhorses to the colours

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WHEN Michael Atherton took over the England captaincy just under a year ago, the path towards youth was so clearly defined that the menu in the players' dining room ought by now to be largely confined to jelly and blancmange. However, the upshot of this evening's Test selection meeting may well prompt The Oval to hand over next week's catering contract to Meals on Wheels.

While the selectors will ostensibly be focusing on the third and final Test match against South Africa, they can be forgiven for at least squinting towards this winter's tour to Australia, not least because the deadliest of all England's foes have now been in possession of the Ashes for an irritatingly long time.

Australia is not so much a case of jobs for the boys as no job for a boy, and of all the names being bandied around this evening, the more wizened variety - Graham Gooch, Mike Gatting and Devon Malcolm - are likely to take up more time than most.

Despite Gooch's lean patch, he is already inked in for the winter tour, and the chairman of the selectors, Raymond Illingworth, is not only known to be in favour of wanting as many battle-hardened troops as is feasible on board October's Ashes aeroplane, but is also an unashamed admirer of Gatting.

Gooch's hamstring injury is not thought to be likely to keep him out of next week's Test match, but there is just enough doubt for England to line up a replacement, and the most likely candidate is another old warrior in Gatting. The Middlesex captain is in prime form, and when you are 1-0 down with one to play, there are better times for experimentation.

The other option is Robin Smith, but with Shane Warne waiting for him in Australia, and with a justifiable limit on how many older sweats England can take, Gatting may now be ahead of him in the queue. In the case of Malcolm, the extra pace and bounce at The Oval make it the venue to which he is most suited, and the selectors would like some recent evidence to go on when they pick their tour side on 1 September.

Angus Fraser, who looks a touch jaded, is the bowler whose place in Thursday's final XI is most under threat. Fraser can still expect a winter in Australia, but a rest here might do him no harm, and in any event it would make sense to take a look at Joey Benjamin's tour credentials on his home ground.

With England now back to a six specialist batsman policy, and Graeme Hick demonstrating that he is a rather better off-spinner than someone to come on and slow down a scoring rate or speed up an over rate, the side is adequately balanced with just the one specialist slow bowler in Philip Tufnell.

Hick's Headingley century has also given him the chance to settle into the No 3 spot, which is where he feels mentally comfortable. It is hard on Alec Stewart, whose greater mental strength means that he must yo-yo around according to selectorial whim, but not half as hard as the crackpot decision to send him in for a one-over pre-declaration slog at Headingley was on John Crawley. If he is dropped for The Oval, resignations will be in order.

ENGLAND (probable): M A Atherton (capt), G A Gooch, G A Hick, G P Thorpe, A J Stewart, J P Crawley, S J Rhodes (wkt), P A J DeFreitas, D Gough, J E Benjamin, P C R Tufnell, A R C Fraser, D E Malcolm. Standby: M W Gatting.