Cricket: Survival of fittest awaits Ashes squad

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The Independent Online
ACCORDING TO the spin doctors of their tourist board, Australia is a pleasant country of barbecues, beaches and cuddly koalas. For the 17 members of England's cricket team announced this morning at Lord's the reality will be quite different and several months of hardship await, particularly if Shane Warne is fit enough to do some spinning of his own.

Bar the brutal West Indies tours of the 1980s, an Ashes tour Down Under is the toughest of them all. This winter England face four months of hard grounds, hard travelling and even harder opposition. Win or lose, it will be an endurance test that will stretch and strain both body and will.

For that reason England need players of uncompromising attitude. There is, as the coach David Lloyd has already pointed out, no room for "iffy characters". Because this tour does not have a lengthy acclimatisation period - only three first-class matches before the first two Tests, which are back to back and 2,000 miles apart - England must identify their most likely 11 in time for the tour opener in Perth on 31 October.

Providing Graham Thorpe has fully recovered from the operation to remove a cyst from his back the top-six batsmen pick themselves, though Mark Ramprakash will have come under recent pressure.

As the tour is long, England are planning to take a reserve wicketkeeper rather than a makeshift. This means only one spare batting place remains. Barring a volte-face from the selectors and the inclusion of Nick Knight the berth, at least on the evidence of this Test, will probably go to John Crawley rather than Graeme Hick, despite the former's open distaste of touring.

The plight of Hick, who averaged almost 42 on the last tour of Australia, is a difficult one. As a player, Hick's supporters and detractors virtually cancel each other out. If the selectors want Hick perhaps it should be at the expense of Ramprakash, whose batting since his marvellous century in Barbados is once more tending towards inertia.

Alec Stewart's understudy as wicketkeeper will fall to either Lancashire's Warren Hegg or Paul Nixon of Leicestershire. Due to the tenacity of Jack Russell both have been in the background a long time, though Hegg did tour Australia with the England A team a few winters back. However, as the pair are capable batsmen it is not inconceivable at some stage, especially if England gamble on starting with Ben Hollioake as the all-rounder, that Stewart could relinquish the gloves and bat the keeper at No 7.

Given that it is the selectors' intention to take a young bowler as 17th man - a position that will probably fall to Surrey's Alex Tudor rather than Durham's Stephen Harmison - only one of the five pace bowling places requires argument.

Notwithstanding injury and, providing they play a spinner, England's starting line-up will be permed from Darren Gough, Angus Fraser, Dominic Cork and Alan Mullally - which leaves Dean Headley, Ed Giddins or the perennially unfashionable Andy Caddick in reserve.

Headley, who bowled well in Australia on a recent A tour, is probably favourite, while Caddick troubled the Australian run-machine, Steve Waugh, more than anyone last summer with his high action.

Partnering Robert Croft with another spinner is not nearly so straightforward. In the wake of Ian Salisbury's timid performances in the last three Tests, it looks as if Phil Tufnell, a disappointment since the Oval Test last year, will be selected by default. Australia, too, have a dearth of quality spinners, though not as serious a shortage as England, who have 12 more first-class sides.

If Tufnell does go, he will not be able to resort so easily to his favoured defensive measure of bowling over the wicket into the rough outside the right-hander's leg stump. The ICC have brought in a new regulation, giving the umpires power to call wide in such circumstances, and if England plan to use their spinners mainly as a defensive measure, they may be better off taking the more level-headed but less talented Ashley Giles.

With no cross-fertilisation between the Ashes and the other main squads - the one-day party to Bangladesh and the A team tour to Zimbabwe and South Africa - a lot of names are due to be announced at Lord's this morning. Presumably that is one of the reasons why the England and Wales Cricket Board employ Simon Pack, a former Nato commander, to organise and deploy them. That and his ability to call up a gunboat or two, should the colonials prove too frisky.

PROBABLE ASHES PARTY: A J Stewart (capt), M A Atherton, M Butcher, N Hussain (vice-capt), G P Thorpe, M R Ramprakash, J P Crawley, W Hegg, R D B Croft, P C R Tufnell, B C Hollioake, D G Cork, D Gough, A D Mullally, A R C Fraser, A R Caddick, J Tudor.