Cricket: Test of character for the change gang

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The Independent Online
What are the thoughts that surround Test cricket selectors in times of deep trouble? Reaching for the razor blades is not an option, and clear heads are better value than sweaty palms, which mostly belong to armchair selectors, anyway.

Those nervous nellies always advocate an unhelpful mix of sackings, redundancy and restructuring, possibly inspired by the England panel's 1988 effort against the West Indies - 23 players captained by four different men. This is no time to revisit that mayhem.

I can relate to the predicament of Messrs Graveney, Gooch and Gatting because the Australian selectors found themselves in similar territory just before the 1989 Ashes tour.

We were copping a fearful hiding from the same West Indian outfit, down three-nil after three Tests, a scoreline which only improved for Australia when the captain Allan Border claimed wickets in the Fourth Test - his usually innocuous part-time spin was unplayable on a Sydney dung-heap. Yet, from the first Test to the last the only major changes we made to the team were these: Dean Jones (for Mike Veletta), Mark Taylor (for Graeme Wood, a switch which also pushed David Boon from opener to No 3), Merv Hughes (for Chris Matthews), and Terry Alderman (for Tony Dodemaide).

There were one or two changes forced through injury and, for the spin- friendly pitch at Sydney Trevor Hohns, the leggie, came in for the pace bowler, Craig McDermott, but overall the talent was merely tweaked and the balance retained. In the darkest times a sensible selection philosophy is "stay calm".

The first point Graveney and company would have been trying to establish was this: just how badly have our selections been playing? It was important that in making their assessment they did not:

l Underestimate Australia's strength;

l Over-react to the Headingley loss;

l Kid themselves, and confuse potential with performance;

l Totally walk away from their original philosophy on squad balance;

l Forget there is a tour to the West Indies coming up;

l Most importantly, forget this Ashes series is still alive.

How's that for a balancing act? Not quite as easy as sitting in an armchair with a pint of bitter, shredding reputations, checking averages and nominating your favourite player.

On the first point, the trap is to discount the Australian performance on the grounds that they had a couple of lucky breaks, the well-worn "what if" theory. Mark Taylor's Australians are tough, and they expertly expose the character of their opponents.

By now, the England selectors should know who can hack it. I would nominate Mark Butcher, Dean Headley, Nasser Hussain, Darren Gough and John Crawley, who seems to be getting stronger with each outing.

That's five for the future. On the edge should be Mark Ealham. He's got what down here we call "ticker". He's a fighter with the bat but is short of the class to get a big score against Australia's attack. He appeals as an improver, especially against lesser bowlers.

He has been ridiculously underbowled by his captain, Mike Atherton. He is the sort of bowler who can keep one end tight, probably pick up a wicket or two while the strikers go at it from the other end. That tactic seems to have escaped Atherton. Is there a game plan when England are in the field?

If the selectors agree with Atherton that Ealham is not of much use as a bowler (why did they pick him?) then Ealham's position must be reconsidered. I would keep him and kick-start the captain, but if consensus was that Ealham had to go yet the balance of the side retained, then Adam Hollioake would be my logical replacement.

Batting Hollioake at No 7 would be a sensible way of easing him into the Test game. The soft option, that he should be saved up for the Caribbean tour, ignores point six - the main aim is still to win the Ashes. Also on the edge would be Graham Thorpe, Alec Stewart and Robert Croft. What can the selectors make of Thorpe's series? Occasional class, casual, careless - can England, at this moment, really afford a millionaire like Thorpe?

If I had been in the selection room this dream would have been recurring: Thorpe accepting the sitter from Matthew Elliot, Australia 50-5. Gee, who knows? England might be leading the series 2-1. I'd have been making a strong case for dropping Thorpe a wake-up call.

Has Robert Croft really been of any value to England? His fielding is ponderous, his batting an easy net for the Australian bowlers, and his bowling, although hampered occasionally by Stewart's fumbles, is disappointing. There is no sign he is about to make the step up in class. The question is, would Phil Tufnell be worse?

Surely there's a better wicket-keeper in England than Stewart and, should he be batting at No. 3? The 'keeper/high-order mix is not working against Australia, but mostly will when the opposition is less classy and there is less pressure. The Caribbean is the time for change.

Mike Smith reminded me of an ice cream on a hot Aussie day, solid for a little while, then meltdown. Rather like England's summer. If I was an England selector I would be picking the tough guys. I would have dropped Croft and Smith and made Thorpe carry the drinks.