Cricket: Inner circle to stay for The Oval

The spectre of the Ashes in Australia will eclipse England's desire to experiment. By Stephen Brenkley
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The Independent Online
IT IS as well that England's present selectors are a loyal bunch. Had they possessed the apparently fickle tendencies of some predecessors they might, by now, be shouting down pit shafts, or indulging in the probable modern equivalent of yelling along the aisles of out-of-town supermarkets, in the hope that an international cricketer would emerge blinking into the sunlight.

But, no, they have stuck resolutely by their stumps, determined on a declared policy of continuity. This unerring course has led to the use, in 11 Test matches and 15 one-day internationals since the end of last season, of 33 players. Of these, 24 have appeared in the short game, 22 in the long form and 13 have doubled up. And they say English cricket is short of strength in depth. The only place to go now probably is some supermarket aisle.

These numbers do not represent a complete abandonment of selectorial strategy (though if the immediate past chairman, Ray Illingworth, had chosen as many, accusations of losing the plot would have been rife). They have felt the need to experiment, particularly in regard to the one- day squad, and injuries and loss of form sufficient to scupper the faith of the most devout have forced their hand in the Tests.

This still does not entirely dispel the dual notion that they might not be certain where they are going, though this will certainly be down the pan, both in Australia this winter and in the World Cup next summer, if they do not work it out imminently. It is unlikely that the number of players who have represented England since the Champions' Trophy in Sharjah last December will be increased to 34 when the squad for the only Test against Sri Lanka is named today. Nor will it be any discourtesy (for once) to the Sri Lankans that it will be aimed in large part at the Ashes tour.

Having been well beaten in the final of the Emirates Triangular Tournament last week, England will be anxious to avoid a repeat in the match which starts at The Oval on Thursday. This should be well within their capabilities. Sri Lanka possess some marvellous players, as they have demonstrated in the last few days, but they have tended to wilt against the stronger Test nations. Both Australia and South Africa have exposed their shortcomings over a prolonged two- innings game and England, at home, ought to do likewise.

Part of the reason for Sri Lanka's failure to progress as they might have hoped in Test cricket, of course, is that some countries, namely England, are reluctant to play against them. Since they were granted full- member status of the ICC in 1981, Sri Lanka have met England on only six occasions, never more than once at a time. It is not the best way to learn.

Not that England will be taking the summer's second tourists lightly. It may represent a breather between the onslaughts of Allan Donald and Glenn McGrath, but there will not be four debutants as there were at Lord's in 1989 (only Jack Russell made serious progress thereafter as Kim Barnett, Phil Newport and David Lawrence, for various reasons, all fell by the wayside).

The selectors have options to consider but these do not involve the purportedly gentle blooding of anybody in Test cricket. It has been remarked that they will learn nothing more about Graeme Hick were he to go out and make a big hundred at The Oval but a similar argument may be applied to, say, Mal Loye, the 25-year-old Northamptonshire batsman who is top of the country's batting averages. Sri Lanka might not be soft touches but nor are they yet hard-nosed Test operators. The only possible reason for giving Loye, for one, a cap now would be if he were seriously in the frame for Australia and he probably isn't.

Naturally, the fall-out from Hick being selected and failing twice - in the manner that he did in the Fifth Test - hardly bears thinking about. He might owe the team and the selectors a performance as well as runs but they would seem to be stuck with him regardless. At least, as the one-day tournament showed, he looks in form again. There will probably be a place in the party, as there will be to Australia, for John Crawley, who has done only what a Test discard can: return to his county to make runs, 1,207 of them in his case, including five hundreds. But his place in the team might depend on the fitness of Nasser Hussain.

The name of Ben Hollioake is being trumpeted again as a replacement for the other young all-rounder Andrew Flintoff. Neither has sparkled of late. Flintoff looked slightly bemused, and who can blame him, by the tension of the tight victory against South Africa at Headingley, and Hollioake's form for Surrey is still not vintage. Assuming only one of the tyros will make the Ashes tour, the anointed one should be in for Thursday. Neither may be. Continuity really is everything now. Still, most of the batting and all the seam bowling picks itself now the new, improved version of Alan Mullally has been plucked from the pack as the left-arm bowler to swing things for England this time.

Spin is the deep-seated concern. The selectors will go with Ian Salisbury and Robert Croft, ignoring Ashley Giles, the only spinner to take a Test wicket for England this summer. It does not augur well. Salisbury, a bag of nervous uncertainty and misdirection at Nottingham and Leeds, would at least be at home at The Oval. The trouble is Sri Lanka against spin are at home anywhere.

Possible squad: Stewart (capt), Atherton, Butcher, Hussain, Ramprakash, Hick, Crawley, Salisbury, Croft, Cork, Gough, Fraser, Mullally.