Cricket: Killer instinct can be great leveller: Derek Pringle looks at the options for England's cricketers as they seek parity with South Africa in the Test series

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The Independent Online
FOR ALMOST four days at Headingley, England got it right. The team was balanced, the cricket was good and the tactics flawless. Yet somewhere along the line, victory became a draw. With only one Test against South Africa left, England cannot afford to squander such a chance again. By winning at The Oval this week, they can draw the series, which, if not quite deserving of vintage champagne all round, will be a useful tonic to take with them to Australia in the winter.

Caution, then, must be resisted, for these are extreme times for English cricket. After the frustrations of Headingley, last night's selection meeting will have provided almost as much indigestion as it would food for thought.

In recent years, The Oval, with its pace and carry, has provided almost as much scope for the one-off selection among bowlers as Headingley. Last year, Devon Malcolm was drafted in to rough the Aussies up, a job he did so effectively that a call-up, after a mediocre season for Derbyshire, must be given serious consideration.

Another option would be to pick the form horse and homeboy, Joey Benjamin, who has bowled his outswingers superbly at The Oval all season. Either way, Angus Fraser will be the bowler to step down. It is a decision that Atherton will find hard to make, for Fraser is a treasure whose absence will be missed in spirit as much as deed. This means Phil Tufnell will have to take over as stock bowler when the situation requires, a job he is more suited to than Ian Salisbury.

The only other conceivable change to be made would be to find a replacement for Graham Gooch, should the Essex captain fail to recover from a tweaked hamstring. By missing the present county game against Surrey, he will be going into the Test 'cold', a situation Gooch and the selectors would find less than ideal.

If Gooch needs to be replaced, then Stewart could revert back to the opening role on a pitch that will allow him to play the kind of backfoot game he relishes. At Headingley, though, his runs came in the middle order and in some style too. Atherton may thus be loath to bring him back as his opening partner, which could mean a chance for the left-handed Surrey opener Darren Bicknell. If not, either Mike Gatting or Robin Smith might be recalled to bat at five. However, so effective did Graham Thorpe's left- handedness prove in disturbing the South African bowlers' line, that Neil Fairbrother may be the better choice.

As England did not lose the Headingley Test,last night's selection meeting was not the Last Supper it might have been for the England captain, Michael Atherton. If England had found themselves two-nil down at The Oval, the trials and tribulations of the past two weeks would probably have made his captaincy untenable. Soiled captains are one thing, but soiled captains who keep losing have always been a tempting scapegoat for more widespread malaise.

As ithappened, England played well at Headingley and, but for a couple of weak sessions with the ball, should have levelled the series. Apart from the captain's defiant riposte to his detractors, Thorpe's batting provided the aggressive impetus that is needed if a team is to score quickly enough, particularly against a side already one-nil up and therefore in no great hurry to dictate play.

Graeme Hick also played well, though he has yet to take charge during the crucial first innings, when most Tests are usually decided. Despite the almost apologetic nature of his body language, his first Test century on home soil may be just the fillip he needs to remove the uncertainty that has dogged his Test career.

Before England's bowlers ran out of steam, all appeared to be going to plan. With South Africa teetering on the precipice at 105-5, the opposition looked doomed to follow-on. Having made the decisive breakthrough in the morning, England then sat back and waited for the Headingley pitch to work its tricks and do the rest. Like a fickle pet dog, it did not oblige. This was a bad mistake and South Africa, looking stricken, recovered to ruddy- cheeked parity.

There are those who believe England's performance at Headingley was no more than an agitation in a body already lifeless. This is harsh, for it was an enhanced performance after the mayhem at Lord's. Inevitably, there are lessons still to be learnt, the chief one being how to prevent England's killer instinct being too easily disarmed. If England are to win at The Oval, they will need to be primed and firing. Possible Test squad: Atherton, Stewart, Hick, Thorpe, Fairbrother (if Gooch unfit), Crawley, Rhodes, DeFreitas, Gough, Tufnell, Malcolm, Benjamin, Salisbury.

(Photograph omitted)