Cricket: Once beaten, twice picked

Stephen Brenkley says England's selectors are ignoring history
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JUDGED BY the eminently reasonable combination of common consent and lousy results, the worst of all England one-day squads played in the World Cup three years ago. They lost to all four of the senior nations they encountered and came home as unmitigated failures. It was a disastrous and eventually embarrassing campaign.

Last week, five of the front-line England batsmen from that tournament were picked for the 1999 World Cup and eyelids stayed resolutely unblinked. It would appear to say much about England's progress. Informal planning for this year's competition began in the summer of 1997, 32 different players have been chosen in one-dayers since, but after all the experiment the selectors will rely for runs almost entirely on a top order they inherited and who have already blown one big chance.

The quintet in question, at least four of whom, depending on fitness, are likely to play at any one time, are Alec Stewart, Michael Atherton, Graeme Hick, Graham Thorpe and Neil Fairbrother. While the only other survivor from the 1996 squad is Darren Gough, the selectors have still managed in many of their other choices to avoid the modern disease of ageism so prevalent in other occupations. The squad's average age has been reduced to 30 only by the inclusion of 21-year-old Andrew Flintoff. The second youngest player is Adam Hollioake at 27.

It might be wide of the mark to suggest that Angus Fraser, Vince Wells and Ian Austin are rapidly approaching an age when the only other job for which they might get an interview is High Court judge but it is difficult to imagine many other countries selecting a trio of 33-year-olds to appear in their first World Cup.

Four of the squad will have not only to defy the passing years if they are to reach the final at Lord's on 20 June but also to be passed as fit. Atherton, Thorpe (both rickety backs), Fairbrother (if his hamstrings were guitar strings he would rarely be able to play a full scale) and Austin (recovering from a knee operation last autumn) will all undergo assessment by the England physiotherapist, Wayne Morton, in the next fortnight.

Morton played down the potential drama of these occasions. While all four players will indeed be put through some pretty rigorous paces he is not despondent about their chances of making it.

"Their fitness is an ongoing process and while I'll be assessing them soon you should also bear in mind that the World Cup does not start until May. I should imagine I'll be giving them all a series of exercises and a work-out to assess their ability to twist and turn and run shuttles.

"It will be something like we do all the time, not a test as such. It's all part of a continuing policy to look at them all in conjunction with their counties. This is stage one and unless they crumple in a heap the idea will then be to go on to stage two. They will have a chance to test themselves in match conditions in Sharjah in April."

For all Morton's caution and knowledge of the players with whom he is dealing, he is still presented with a series of conundrums, whatever results the examinations produce: three of them have conditions which might recur at any time, but especially in a match. Atherton had minor surgery on his back last week but it has caused him intermittent pain for years and is provoked by batting.

Still, he managed to play more than 50 Tests in succession before dropping out against Sri Lanka at The Oval last August and against Australia in Sydney in January. He has probably played in severe discomfort on occasion and perhaps his sense of responsibility towards the team has shifted since he resigned the captaincy.

Thorpe has been recuperating well since leaving the winter's Ashes tour. Morton has yet to see him but the reports he has received are unquestionably optimistic. Fairbrother is a slightly different case. His hamstrings appear to choose their own moments to twang. Since it is nearly four months since Austin's knee was repaired he is likely to be fit enough. England simply do not want to take any unnecessary risks.

This will be the seventh World Cup and they reached at least the semi- finals in the first five. The state of the sport in this country demands that they do something similar this summer. A repeat of the events of 1996 when they reached the quarter-finals only because of victories against Holland and United Arab Emirates cannot be countenanced.

England might be much better prepared but they have taken a long time to settle on what they perceive to be their most appropriate combination. They must ask themselves if they have truly given the required number of chances to those who have not been picked. Players such as Darren Maddy, Chris Adams, even Dougie Brown, were flirted with but no more. What was the point when arriving back whence you started?

They have rightly made much of playing in home conditions in May and June but they must not make too much of it. In any case men like Austin and Wells might be long in the tooth but they are still fledgling internationals. On balance there is an imbalance about the 15 names in the squad and when they were announced last week England's participation in the final at Lord's on 20 June did not seem any closer.

FORGOTTEN MEN: Four who can count themselves unlucky

DEAN HEADLEY

HAVING established his credentials as a Test match bowler he was given, in the Australian triangular series, an opportunity to cement his place as the third seamer England may need in the World Cup. He failed to tighten an end sufficiently, and batsmen were unpressurised. Angus Fraser, similarly huge-hearted, earned the nod due to his purported superiority in English conditions but it was one of those selections where not playing in recent matches was more helpful than playing in them.

MARK RAMPRAKASH

A BATSMAN who can honestly claim he was not offered sufficient opportunity. His last one-day innings for England was a half-century against West Indies. Ignored subsequently throughout the summer and winter despite establishing a Test place. This seems to fly in the face of the declared policy of a more orthodox cricketing approach to the business of accumulating scores. While he is no big one-day hitter his correctness of technique may have come in handy.

ALISTAIR BROWN

WHATEVER else it may be, England's World Cup will be much the less entertaining for the Surrey batsman's absence. He is a victim of the policy of eschewing so-called pinch-hitting, which he did with some understandably fitful returns. Brown always attempted to play as he is instructed and as recently as last May he compiled a hay- making 59 in 40 balls against South Africa. It took England long enough to decide he did not fit. Crowds would disagree.

NASSER HUSSAIN

AS the tour of Australia reached its conclusion he looked more and more weary. He had been away a long time and at the last it has cost him dear. He was weighed down by his desire to appear in a World Cup and perhaps that personal ambition cost his team in the triangular series. Having made 58 off 98 balls he played a shot that did for him, charging down the pitch to Shane Warne and being stumped. He exposed a temperamental flaw at the worst possible moment.

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