Cricket: Stewart still holds key to balance

Stephen Brenkley studies the options as Hussain regime sit in judgement
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The Independent Online
IF THE England selectors picked their squad for the First Test over a spot of dinner last night they will have been joined by a familiar spectre at the feast. Alec Stewart has been removed as captain but that still leaves two other roles to go: opening batsman and wicket-keeper.

The conundrum of what should be done with Stewart has dominated selection for most of this decade and as the present chairman of the panel, David Graveney, observed, it was there at the start of his tenure and refuses to disappear, fresh era or not. Macbeth, Graveney might have mused as the entree arrived, thought he had problems with Banquo.

This team for the game against New Zealand at Edgbaston on Thursday, in which Nasser Hussain will lead England for the first time, is an examination of resolve and intent. Those picking it have to try to balance the future and the past and recognise that the recent past has not often been good. Here is another bright, new dawn waiting to be turned into a long, sun- kissed day.

There are three Stewart possibilities open to the selectors and Hussain, with input perhaps from the new coach, Duncan Fletcher, who will be a selector when he takes up his duties formally in October. The first is to use Stewart solely as an opening batsman, because the days when it was felt, wrongly, that he could both open and keep wicket have been buried for good.

The second option is to put him in the middle order, probably at No 6, and allow him to retain the gloves. The third is to drop him. All have their attractions, all would, as ever, alter the balance of the side significantly, and all would have an effect on any will to rebuild England for a new age. The likelihood is that Stewart will play. Hussain said categorically that he would not discard him lightly, and it was clear that Graveney knew, without saying so, that dropping a man from whom he had recently taken the captaincy would be a hard extra step. But picking England teams is all about hard decisions.

Option one would provide a chance for a new wicketkeeper. Three are in the frame: Rob Turner of Somerset, Paul Nixon of Leicestershire and Chris Read of Nottinghamshire. The man in possession, Warren Hegg, who kept in the last two matches of the Ashes series in the winter, has not rated a mention. Turner is the fourth leading run scorer in the country, with 662 in the Championship, and is as agile as they come standing back. He is also 31 and while Bob Taylor was 36 when he finally assumed the role from Alan Knott he was a special keeper and a special case.

Nixon, 28, is not half as indifferent a wicketkeeper as has sometimes been suggested, is a tough, aggressive player and an extremely handy, attacking batsman. But if he was not considered good enough to go to Australia it is hard to see why he should be now. Read is 21, the same age as Knott when he was thrust into the England side, has velvet gloves and is learning to bat in the middle order as his 160 for Nottinghamshire two weeks ago demonstrated.

The Championship is not what it was but Knott had not come close to a domestic hundred in 1967 when he was thrust into the Second Test against Pakistan at No 8, scored nought and, apart from a three-match hiatus that winter, kept the place for a generation. Read is not the finished article, of course not, but he is widely held to be the man for the future - a period which should start here.

Option two would deprive England of the chance of blooding Read or anybody else but it would, at least, open the way for a new opening batsman. Mark Butcher, who has scored 712 Championship runs this summer and is in sound, confident form, has obviously booked one spot. His partner could either be Michael Vaughan, sparky A tour captain, two hundreds in one match this season but not much else besides or Darren Maddy, who has accumulated consistently for Leicestershire. Vaughan has a reputation for giving it away, but he has always somehow looked to have the class of an international player.

Then there is option three, in which case Andrew Flintoff, 21, could be given a chance at No 6. It would be bold and it would place a burden of expectation on him. Surely No 7 (where Ian Botham learned his trade and where, indeed, he batted against Australia when he became a legend in 1981) would be more appropriate at first. That may be so but there is no better chance for Flintoff to learn the perils and joys of No 6 than now.

Having dealt with Banquo, sorry Stewart, Graveney and his men will fill in the rest of the batting. This is simple at the start of the series - Hussain at three, Graham Thorpe at four, Mark Ramprakash at five - and how spiffing it would be if that were still so after the Ashes have been regained in two years.

The seam bowling places are between Alan Mullally, Alex Tudor, Chris Silverwood, Dean Headley and Andrew Caddick. Headley has had a woeful time this summer, poor chap, Caddick (42 wickets) has been in incisive form as has Tudor (38 wickets at at a good rate of one every 40 balls). Silverwood played one Test two winters ago in Zimbabwe, has known some hard times since but has stuck at it. He is in form. Graveney, incidentally, wants to pick more bowlers in the squad than might be strictly necessary so as their fitness can be tested.

No doubt there will have to a spinner. Phil Tufnell could be recalled yet again, for he is the best in the country and Hussain has made it clear he intends to embrace what might be perceived as troublesome players. But Ashley Giles, peculiarly, has as many wickets and can bat.

This is a big chance for England. Not only New Zealand but South Africa, West Indies, Pakistan and Australia will be waiting to see if they dare take it.

Possible squad: N Hussain (Essex, capt); A J Stewart, M A Butcher, G P Thorpe (all Surrey); M R Ramprakash (Middlesex); A Flintoff (Lancashire); C M W Read (Notts); A J Tudor (Surrey); A F Giles (Warwickshire); C E W Silverwood (Yorkshire); A D Mullally (Leicestershire); A R Caddick (Somerset); D W Headley (Kent).

Hussain interview, page 14