Cricket: Muddled England still in a stew over Stewart: Tomorrow's Test selection meeting promises more questions than answers. Martin Johnson marks the judges' cards

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The Independent Online
AS everything down to the 12th man's jockstrap nowadays gets sponsored before you can say TCCB marketing department, there might be a few bob to be made by flogging off England's first Ashes selection meeting of the summer tomorrow to Paracetemol. The Do Not Disturb sign threatens to be hanging from the doorknob for a good bit longer than usual, and the sound of a flipped lid or two may not be entirely down to the percolator.

This is a devilishly tricky assignment for the selectors, who, as usual, have not gone short of advice, and one former captain has even advocated kicking out all the 'foreigners'. However, the notion that the recipe for world domination is to clamber into Noel Coward smoking jackets and start belting out choruses of 'Rule Britannia' is somewhat simplistic, and liable in any event to get short shrift from Ted Dexter (born in Milan) tomorrow night.

The selectors all speak English, but the suspicion that they occasionally have difficulty understanding each other was reinforced in the immediate aftermath of the third Texaco Trophy defeat, when Graham Gooch chose the moment to slot in the key component to the squad for Old Trafford. Namely, what to do about Alec Stewart.

The vice-captain's absence from Surrey's match against the tourists gave rise to the thought that the twinge in his back might have been the result of humping three separate jobs around on it, but Gooch was in no doubt about Stewart's role this time. Yes, he will open the batting, and no, he will not be keeping wicket.

All cut and dried, then. Stewart to open, Jack Russell behind the stumps. Er, um, not quite, as it happens. Cue throat-clearing operation from the team manager, Keith Fletcher, who 24 hours later made it clear that Gooch did not actually have a mandate to make unilateral decisions. It is a rare event indeed for Gooch and Fletcher not to be singing in unison, so what are we to make of it?

Firstly, we can be sure that Stewart will not be keeping wicket through personal choice. It is not easy picking a winner from the list of crass decisions made on the India tour, but Stewart being allowed to ditch the gloves in order to fit in with his wishes to open was certainly one of the stronger candidates.

Furthermore, the fact that Stewart has more than proved himself up to the job of opening in Test cricket is not really the point. He won his first caps in the West Indies because the selectors decided that a wicketkeeping all-rounder was the only option to the lack of a replacement for Ian Botham, and unless they have now decided that Chris Lewis is up to the job of batting at No 6 - unlikely - or that five batsmen will now suffice - even more unlikely - then that situation still applies.

If Russell is chosen for Old Trafford, with Stewart to open, and Lewis at No 7, England effectively leave themselves a bowler light. Gooch admitted to a cock-up in Russell being omitted for India, but neither the urge to send round the equivalent of the Interflora van to Jack's house, nor wanting to do the right thing by Alec, should be the yardstick here.

The thought that Stewart's wish to open the batting may not be unconnected with the spin-off of further easing Michael Atherton out of the future England captain equation is certainly a cynical one, and almost certainly unfair. It is only natural that Stewart should want to do as he does for Surrey; bat high up, and save the gloves for one-day games.

Stewart's position in the order not only has a bearing on whether Atherton gets a game, but also on whether Mark Lathwell is offered the opportunity to extend an England career that has thus far offered him invaluable experience only in the field of domestic service. Three matches spent filling up Gatorade bottles is not much of a return for filling your boots in county cricket.

The 21-year-old Lathwell is the classiest prospect to emerge in English cricket for many years, and there are precious few doubts about his temperament either. However, if the selectors had been in charge of the Old Testament XI, they would still be picking Methuselah for A tours, and Lathwell may not be the first to discover this weekend that runs count for rather less than wrinkles.

Mike Gatting, Mark Ramprakash, Graham Thorpe and Neil Fairbrother (the latter two offering an important left-handed option) will also be heavily discussed tomorrow night, but the problem with the bowling is more a case of 'who?' rather than 'how can we squeeze them all in?' Lewis picks himself, Andy Caddick is more or less assured of a first cap, and Mark Ilott's prospects are enhanced not only by bowling left arm, but also for the right county.

As for the spinners, it is fair to say that Philip Tufnell had an unhappy winter, largely because he quickly decided that he would not be looking for a timeshare holiday appartment in India, but he remains the best left-arm tweaker in the country, and, given the fact that there may be three left- handers in Australia's first five, it might be a contest between Peter Such's offspin, and Ian Salisbury's ability to turn it both ways.

My own 12 would be: Gooch (capt), Lathwell, Atherton, Smith, Hick, Stewart (wkt), Lewis, Salisbury, Caddick, Jarvis, Ilott, Tufnell.