Cricket: New England go for Giddins

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IT IS doubtful that Picasso was ever aware of cricket but, when he was breakfasting at his local cafe in Mougins in the autumn of his long life, the artist is alleged to have drawn a figure on a paper napkin. It was no more than an idle sketch, but when the waitress asked if he would sign it, he declined. "The doodle is yours for free," he told her, "but the signature is worth millions."

A similar logic could be applied to the blank bit of paper filled by the England selectors, Nasser Hussain, Duncan Fletcher and David Graveney, for the last Test of the summer. Like most right-minded people, they know that, until the names on the sheet begin winning on a regular basis, they will count for nothing.

The first priority, therefore, with the series against New Zealand poised at 1-1, is to win at The Oval. To achieve this, the selectors have dropped Mark Butcher, Chris Read and Peter Such and included Darren Maddy, Ronnie Irani, Graeme Swann, Ed Giddins and Chris Silverwood. In other words, it is one stand-in captain, a young 'un and an old 'un, for two young 'uns, two late twenty-somethings and one welltravelled fast bowler.

It is change, though hardly the new for old policy implied by Lord MacLaurin, the chairman of the England and Wales Cricket Board, when he sacrificed the selectors Mike Gatting and Graham Gooch to public opinion after England, with the help of some timely Manchester rain, drew the Old Trafford Test.

After the dismal performances of the last month, some new blood was needed, if only to try to pacify caustic public opinion. But, if the ideal mix would have been two parts trusted and one part untried, the truth is that the jury is still out on all but the captain Hussain, whose exoneration from the debacle thus far may well owe much to the finger he broke at Lord's.

Of the newcomers, the choice of Giddins alone is controversial, though Swann would have been, had he been expected to fulfil the role of specialist spinner rather than that of spinning all-rounder.

Banned for 18 months in 1996, after testing positive for a banned substance, in this case cocaine, Giddins is fairly untypical of your late 1990s county cricketer, whose idea of adventure stems no further than trying out the new Thai restaurant in the high street.

Off-season jobs as a topless waiter in Australia, and a Christmas tree seller in Fulham in partnership with Surrey's leg-spinner Nadeem Shahid - they have 500 tree stands stored under the pavilion at The Oval - betray a listlessness in Giddins, whose rakish effrontery would be more at home working the floor of a nightclub like Tramp than toiling away at Trent Bridge. At least, that is the impression, though 43 wickets in the County Championship this season for Warwickshire obviously tell another story.

Bowling his brisk outswing, Giddins has courted controversy on the field as well and he was called for throwing in a second-team game for Sussex, the county that sacked him after his positive drugs test. He has been reported, but not called (for throwing), by an umpire this season. After filming him, the ECB (though not the International Cricket Council, which pronounced on Muttiah Muralitharan) cleared his action, though purists may still have doubts over its legality.

Yet despite these setbacks, the man himself never doubted his promotion. "I always believed I'd reach this point, right from the time I was on the Lord's ground staff in 1990," said Giddins, after hearing the news. "It's just that it's taken a bit longer than I planned."

Giddins then added: "It's a fine line and, although I was tipped for every Test last season, I knew I wasn't quite there. This season has been a real eye-opener for me and for the first time in my career I lost my rhythm. But I bowled well in a televised match against Leicestershire and that kick-started me. People can come from obscurity to the top very quickly on a good performance and I now feel a little door has opened for me."

As part of a 13-man squad, he may not make the final XI, though the car crash suffered by Silverwood's wife, Emma, has reduced those odds by placing doubt on the Yorkshireman's availability. Having been in the squad for all but the second Test, it would be desperate luck if Silverwood, surely next in line following Dean Headley's shoulder injury, were to miss out on this one as well.

If selection of Giddins is the yin, then Maddy, the Leicestershire batsman who will open the innings at The Oval with Michael Atherton, is the yang. A diligent worker on both personal fitness and technique, Maddy was picked for the one-dayers against South Africa last season, mainly on the back of some impressive performances for the England A team the previous winter.

Batting out of place at five, his only international innings yielded a single run, though the manner of it suggested a player overcome by nerves, and he allowed his disappointment to affect him by having a modest season. With Butcher and Michael Vaughan and Nick Knight all in contention for a tour place, the pressure will not have evaporated, though his form this season, 888 first-class runs at an average of 48, suggests he has come to terms with that initial failure.

At 20, Swann has no such self-doubt, even if his bowling, as one county coach recently described it, "contains three four-balls every two overs." Like most talented young players, his batting has been fashioned mainly from one-day cricket, with its emphasis on risk and improvisation rather than careful shot selection. Like most fireworks, the spectacle is often colourful but brief.

According to his county captain, Swann is an enforcer who does not fear failure. A shame, then, that Irani, another boisterous battler, will probably not share the dressing-room with him. Following the restoration of Alec Stewart to the role of wicketkeeper-batsman, one of them will surely have to miss out. It is a decision that will be made once the pitch, nearly always a turner at this time of year, has been assessed.

Irani, who is having a fine season, is felt to have improved since winning the second of his Test caps against India in 1996. Certainly that is the impression given by Graveney, the chairman of selectors, who pointed out that Irani's current first-class averages for the season - 45 with bat, and 22 with ball - were at least the right way round for an all-rounder. His attitude, despite a previous spat with the then coach David Lloyd, was also a factor in selection, and Graveney spoke of the need to raise the temperature of the dressing-room.

"The lacklustre spirit in the last two Tests has brought the need for a battler," Graveney said. "Ronnie fits the bill. He's fitter than he was last time he played for England, especially in the bowling department, and this a chance to do himself justice."

It is also a chance for England to show the public that Test cricket is a game worthy of acclamation rather than derision. Nasser Hussain's blank sheet of paper may well have been filled in, for now, but the question remains. Is it a sketch, or does it have the makings of a masterpiece?


Fourth Test v New Zealand, The Oval, 19-23 August

M A Atherton (Lancashire) 89 Tests

D L Maddy (Leicestershire) 0

N Hussain (Essex) (capt) 41

G P Thorpe (Surrey) 56

A J Stewart (Surrey) (wkt) 89

M R Ramprakash (Middlesex) 37

R C Irani (Essex) 2

G P Swann (Northamptonshire) 0

A R Caddick (Somerset) 24

A D Mullally (Leicestershire) 15

C E W Silverwood (Yorkshire) 1

P C R Tufnell (Middlesex) 37

E S H Giddins (Warwickshire) 0