Cricket / Test Match: England must be prepared to pursue the positive: While Illingworth and Atherton beg to differ over framework of team the tourists' strength lies in their ability to pull together

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The Independent Online
AFTER several months of gentle skirmishing it is time, in tonight's selection meeting for the first Test against South Africa at Lord's, for Ray Illingworth to either take control or relinquish it in favour of the captain, Michael Atherton.

Having accepted the post of chairman on the grounds that the buck stops with him, Illingworth has alternately grabbed it and sidestepped it with the result that change in England's middle order has been stymied by the politics of compromise.

It has been clear all summer that pairing Graeme Hick and Robin Smith leaves England vulnerable. Illingworth and Atherton are understood to recognise this, but the problem lies in their differing identification of fault and cure.

Illingworth is thought to want to retain Hick, who he regards as a potential all-rounder, and bring in Graham Thorpe for Smith. Atherton is believed to be more inclined towards retaining Smith and replacing Hick with John Crawley. To date, the consequence has been immobility.

Illingworth's judgements thus far have been impressive. Darren Gough, Steve Rhodes and Phillip DeFreitas have proved successes, Craig White has shown promise.

Left to his own devices, Atherton is unlikely to have instituted the same changes in terms of personnel or number, but that does not necessarily mean Illingworth was right. For all the individual successes of Illingworth's recruits, the team is not that much tougher or stronger as a unit since they returned from the Caribbean, a state that may be connected to the dismissal of the captain's plea for stability.

South Africa, who have had some fearful selection rows of their own since returning to Test cricket, have nevertheless been far more stable. Leaving out three players cast aside after the initial, hurriedly arranged Test in Bridgetown, they have used only 19 more in 13 further Tests. In the same number, England have played 31.

The consequence is fearful players and a lack of that team spirit which is forged in shared adversity. Dave Richardson, South Africa's wicketkeeper, said he 'always feels if England had the same spirit and teamwork as we do they would be up with the West Indies as the best team in the world'. Jonty Rhodes, his team-mate, adds: 'Our biggest strength is that we all pull together. The team has stuck together in some tough situations.'

After that, it may seem strange to be arguing for more changes, but most of the team are now settled (the only other contentious place is which spinner to include) and it is too late to go back. The recall of Thorpe would go some way to restoring the post-Caribbean mood - his axing was the most thoughtless of them all - and Crawley's class demands a place.

Two changes in crucial positions for a demanding Test may seem risky, but it will be even harder to blood them if England leave Lord's one down. Dropping Smith and Hick (whose century yesterday means little in this context, especially as he was missed early on) rather than neither may still be a compromise, but at least it is a positive one and Illingworth can underline his authority by making his support for Ian Salisbury count.

Min Patel and, with tentative but genuine hope, Phil Tufnell should also be considered, but - like Chris Lewis and Andy Caddick, both fit again and taking wickets - may not feature just yet.

My squad would be: M A Atherton (capt), A J Stewart, J P Crawley, G A Gooch, G P Thorpe, C White, S Rhodes (wkt), P A J DeFreitas, D Gough, A R C Fraser, I D K Salisbury, M M Patel.