Cricket: No time and fewer options

Australian fallout leaves England in confusion as the World Cup countdown quickens
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The Independent Online
ENGLAND'S SELECTORS have been meticulous in casting their net wide to prepare for the World Cup. Unfortunately their diligent activity has clouded the waters so much that they now find themselves still fishing for a team. There are six more weeks, but no more matches before they must name their squad of 15, and after 18 months of heavy-duty trawling they may have trouble telling the difference between a rusty bike and a lusty pike.

The one-day triangular tournament in Australia briefly promised to provide the answers. By the time it finished last week the conundrum was much the same as before: something has to be discarded, but it is difficult to know what might emerge in its place. The selectors' policy has not, as it turns out, made their task any easier.

Since planning for the World Cup informally began in the summer of 1997 (when a brave new world was announced and Australia were beaten 3-0) England have used 32 players in 32 one-day internationals. Of these 26 remain officially in the frame, six have been thrown overboard and four others have come bubbling to the surface.

Had England won the Carlton & United Series down under the incumbents would be impossible to ignore. But they started well, stuttered and finished heading back at pace to square one. Australia won the finals 2-0 and if England robbed themselves in the first match they opened the door and allowed Australia to plunder and pillage as they liked in the second. They might have been tired, they were certainly abject.

It ended so badly that not only personnel for the immediate future were in doubt but also method. England are likely to stick to playing what is perceived as proper cricket (that is, ignoring the claims of out and out pinch-hitters or sloggers and depending on more legitimate, if still bold attacking play and middle-order accumulation) but to do so they need proper cricketers.

In assessing the Australian series and England's progress, David Graveney, the tour manager and chairman of selectors, at least sought no excuses. He lavished praise on the bowling, sprinkled it on the fielding and withdrew it altogether from the batting. If solace is to be found it is that a World Cup in England in May and June may well be a bowlers' tournament. So singular are both the conditions and the swinging white Duke ball which has been chosen for the matches that the home side must take advantage.

The opening attack at least is in place. Darren Gough and Alan Mullally have begun to complement each other well. It is the back-up seam which will provoke wide discussion between now and the end of the month, when the initial squad of 19 is announced.

Two players not in Australia, Ian Austin and Peter Martin, were frequently recited between matches by Graveney and the coach, David Lloyd. It got so that if you closed your eyes you could imagine Austin Martin as a particularly smooth running machine, low on fuel costs and high on acceleration. There may not be room for both components, in which case expect Austin to gain the selectorial nod.

Austin's strengths as a seamer in characteristically early season England are well known, or so it would appear. It merely seems a pity that he has been picked in neither of the last two Texaco Trophy squads when this could have been put to the test in international terms. His England experience to date is limited to the Emirates Trophy late last summer when he returned 3 for 126 while conceding 4.42 runs an over.

Lloyd, especially, has been fetchingly affectionate towards his tubby fellow Lancastrian and quite insistent in pursuing his cause. Hard to imagine Austin on the Lord's balcony in June grasping the World Cup in one hand and one of Higginbottom's finest pies with the other, but not beyond the bounds of possibility.

Unless there is a movement towards Angus Fraser, as there should be, the rest of the bowlers will be all-rounders. Mark Ealham had one spectacularly good match in Australia and no duff ones, and he will play. Vince Wells looked the part of an England cricketer and did as he was bid. Adam Hollioake and Robert Croft - as the sole spinner - will also be there.

It has been noticeable in the past six weeks that Australia have adopted a policy of using as many as eight bowlers in a 50-over match, two or three of them for a mere two or three overs each. The aim, in the middle of an innings, is to disrupt the batsman's tempo, make him work harder for his routine ones and twos against slightly varying paces and lengths.

England may decide that in most matches six bowlers will do, in which event they had better ensure the batting is at full strength. It is the batting which now threatens not only England's appearance in the latest stage of the World Cup but also even their ability to qualify from the earliest. Graveney sadly observed before flying home that it had not performed well as a unit throughout the triangular series and he was speaking the truth. Graeme Hick, scorer of three hundreds in four innings and obviously back as a limited-over batsman at least, cannot win the trophy by himself.

So lacklustre were the openers, Alec Stewart, the captain, and Nick Knight that mention of a return for Michael Atherton did not seem fanciful. Graham Thorpe is surely a certainty for the middle order. The trouble with them both is that they have plenty of backbone but seriously dodgy backs. Since they tend to break down only when batting and since the World Cup organisers might be loath to allow a replacement for a player suffering from a recurrence of a well-known injury, selecting them both is fraught with potential disaster.

Neil Fairbrother was not as effective by the end of the tournament in Australia as he had been at the start but he deserves to hang on. It is possible that Nasser Hussain, Thorpe's recent replacement, has ultimately done himself more harm than good. He was obviously filled with fatigue after a long tour but the evidence that he was always doing what was best for the team was not consistent. Mark Ramprakash, who had an equally good Ashes series, may reap the benefit of having spent more time with his family in January and February. And he could be used as a bowler.

There have to be enough sound fielders in any given 11 that there is a chance of hitting the stumps as well as stopping fours. It is getting on in the day to get it right, but England have one last chance to avoid talking indefinitely about the one that got away.

My Squad: A J Stewart (capt), N V Knight, G A Hick, G P Thorpe, M R Ramprakash, N H Fairbrother, A J Hollioake, V J Wells, M A Ealham, R D B Croft, D Gough, A D Mullally, D W Headley, A R C Fraser, I D Austin.