Cricket: Malcolm's chance for vindication

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The Independent Online
The England selectors have declared their opening hand for the first skirmish in the Ashes, but have yet to put all their cards on the table. That will only happen when the fickle Edgbaston pitch has been given a thorough going over by Atherton's think tank.

What is certain, barring unforeseen circumstance, is that Devon Malcolm, recalled after an 18- month absence will play. So will the 24-year old Surrey opener Mark Butcher, who is joined in the 13-man squad by his county captain Adam Hollioake, a man who will not know his fate until the pitch has been read.

Of those not involved with England over the winter, it is the recall of Malcolm that will generate the most interest in the Australian camp. Having not been considered for the Texaco matches, he was withdrawn from Derbyshire's game against the Australians at the request of David Graveney, the chairman of selectors.

Keeping him under wraps will not add mystique, but it will prevent the likes of Matthew Elliot and Justin Langer from having an early sighter.

In the past players like Mark Waugh have puzzled why Malcolm has not been an automatic choice for England. They always felt that his pace and unpredictability made him England's most likely strike bowler.

England's previous thinking on the matter was that Malcolm could only be risked when partnered by a metronome like Angus Fraser. On Thursday he will be partnered by Darren Gough and Andy Caddick, neither of them known for regular grouping round the triple twenty. Which makes it more likely that Mark Ealham and not the talismanic Hollioake will fill the all-rounder's spot at number seven.

But could we be about to see a different Malcolm? With the unsympathetic Raymond Illingworth now off his back, Malcolm is taking wickets as never before. That breeds confidence and the sight of him and the effervescent Gough will surely whet the public's appetite, were it, indeed, needed.

Speaking yesterday, Malcolm said that his acrimonious fallout with Illingworth in South Africa, was history.

"I've put it to one side and and I can't wait to get out there," he said. "I've had a good rest over the winter and I've been working pretty hard on my concentration. I'm pretty confident. Playing a Test against Australia is the biggest motivation there is and I'm all fired up and hope I'm in the team."

For Butcher, preferred in front of his fellow left-handers Nick Knight and Hugh Morris, the chance comes after sterling performances for both England A and Surrey. Morris was clearly the man in form though, at the age of 33, the selectors decided that he was unlikely to be a part of the future.

Having begun the season with a century at Edgbaston for England A, Butcher's batting has tailed off recently. Still, the pride he will derive from adding to Test cricket's burgeoning family tree - his father Alan got one cap against India in 1979 - and from seeing off the shine for his brother-in-law, Alec Stewart, should more than make up for that.

Stewart will continue batting at three, with Nasser Hussain, recently coming into runs for Essex at four. For Stewart, though, the prospect of a fourth Ashes series is loaded with possibilities.

"I've played in three losing series against the Aussies and I'd love to make it fourth time lucky," he said. "Australia are probably the number one side in world cricket at the moment, but that is not to say we're not capable of beating them."

One man who will have no doubts over who will be hoisting the little urn in three months time is Adam Hollioake. However, the Surrey skipper is only likely to play if the pitch is a poor one, which is unlikely given the adverse publicity Warwickshire have received over their Test pitches in the last two years.

Ealham's return, after a mixed entrance last summer - he looked the part against India but struggled against Pakistan - owes more to his bowling than his batting. With three attacking frontline bowlers, the selectors obviously feel his accurate skidders will offer Atherton control, should his colleagues become too profligate.

In the past, it is a role Phil Tufnell has excelled at, but one that is unlikely to be his again this Thursday. Providing that Tufnell does not play, England, with a middle-order comprising of Graham Thorpe, John Crawley and Ealham, will try and scupper the Australians with a combination of Croft's off-spin and the pace of Gough, Malcolm and Caddick.

It is an aggressive selection, and one further emboldened by the inclusion of another Surrey teenager, Alex Tudor. The tall fast bowler is not in the official squad, but his inclusion for the pre-match preparations is further evidence that England's trio of selectors are fast turning into three wise men.

By giving him a taste of the atmosphere they will be hoping that Tudor returns to his county a hungrier young man. Let us hope that his senior colleagues are similarly stimulated when the battle commences.