Cricket: Millennium man and his men for the millennium

Stephen Brenkley selects his England side for the near future

AS England went 2-1 down in the Test series and one of their team stood out above all others the irresistible speculation began. From being a fringe member of the party, one of those who had been over there but overlooked for the entire tour, Mark Ramprakash was suddenly elevated not only into the team but into the frame as their next captain, the leader for the millennium.

Sporting prediction always has been a dangerous but seductive game. Few have been the subject of more predictions, not to mention less predictable, than Michael Atherton. This means that all bets could shortly be off again, of course, but one day Atherton will no longer be captain of England and the defeat in Guyana was one of those which seemed to bring the day closer. As Ramprakash, at 28, is only 18 months younger than a man whose stoicism and phlegm remain admirable, proposing him not only as a likely successor but as the Man for the New Century may seem an adventurous punt at best.

He must first continue to make his own case with the bat, and getting his Test average above 20 would be a start, but there are solid reasons for thinking he may be the anointed one. Although he has played under Atherton and now has a total of 21 Test caps he has never established himself or become a part of the inner circle. Continuity has its merits but when Atherton goes it may be wise to have a departure.

Ramprakash has not been automatically captain throughout his career. Indeed, when he got the Middlesex job last June his only previous experience was leading England Under-19s a couple of times and only then, he said, "because of seniority, I'd been around a long time". While he may not have pulled up trees as a captain in his first season, he planted plenty of healthy seeds which suggest he may be able to sow. As Middlesex finished equal fourth in the table, Ramprakash's form was as sublime as ever.

And should the selectors deem that change is desirable to take England on to greater heights and that a mature, mellowed Ramprakash is the man to do that, what team might he lead against West Indies? Not this winter, of course, but in the year 2000, that seminal summer, when next they tour England. This is riskier ground still but this winter's trips have provided clues.

In the senior team itself many if not all of the batsmen may still be around but they need to start performing again as a unit pretty quickly if they are to last for another three summers. It is fervently to be hoped that Mark Butcher, another stoic, stays (left-handedly) around but there is no doubt that from the A tour recently finished Darren Maddy of Leicestershire, a record-breaking batsman three seasons ago in Second XI cricket, has now made the adjustment and looked ready and willing for the big time. Ben Hollioake has had too much publicity to fail now. The signs are that he might even thrive on the stuff and an England 2000 top seven without him is unimaginable.

Other batsmen for whom the selectors will be willing to undertake long motorway journeys in the hope of catching more than a passing glimpse are Owais Shah, still evolving but also still on the fast track after Under-19s success and A team experience in the winter; Andrew Flintoff, a Lancastrian who had a tremendous start to the A team tour; and Stephen Peters of Essex, centurion hero of the Under-19s World Cup final. Others such as Ed Smith of Kent and the still adjusting but once highly promising Marcus Trescothick could train on.

Of the likely bowlers Ashley Giles of Warwickshire has learnt a few things about pace variation and can bat. A right-arm finger spinner for the millennium might be asking too much but Jonathan Powell and Graeme Swann have early promise. Sadly, there is not a wrist spinner in sight. The pace department is not well stocked but Jamie Ormond is quick, Paul Hutchison has swing and a certain Dominic Cork will still be only 28. As for the wicketkeeper, either the selectors bring back Alan Knott, or hope that the smart catcher Chris Read's imminent move to Nottinghamshire will give him some flat Trent Bridge tracks on which to develop his batting.

So to the squad (mission implausible perhaps) for the First Test in England in 2000: Ramprakash (capt), Butcher, E T Smith, Shah, Thorpe, Hussain, B C Hollioake, Giles, Cork, Read, Silverwood, Hutchison, Ormond.

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