Cricket: Test of England's evolution theory

Stephen Brenkley suggests the desire for a settled squad is second to the need for victory
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The Independent Online
CONTINUITY is an admirable policy in selection, combining loyalty, resolve, patience and the stubborn belief that you were right all along. Unfortunately, the small matter of winning matches also comes into the equation and so when England's squad for the First Test against South Africa is announced today it is likely to contain only six of the thirteen players chosen for the corresponding event last year.

Since Edgbaston 1997 was when English cricket entered the sporting territory known as Dreamland - with a victory as thrilling as any of the 249 the country had previously enjoyed in Test matches - this may indicate how brief the visit turned out to be. So far, the teams under David Graveney's enlightened stewardship as chairman of selectors have failed to bring home the bacon, or in this case, either the Ashes or the Wisden Trophy. Graveney and his fellow selectors, Mike Gatting and Graham Gooch - now supported by the new captain Alec Stewart, who will have a vote - may crave continuity, or at least something closer to evolution than revolution, but, as so many panels have found in recent times, it remains an aspiration.

The sextet who were part of last year's jubilant proceedings and can be expected to pay a return visit to Birmingham this week are: Stewart, Michael Atherton, Nasser Hussain, Graham Thorpe, Robert Croft and Darren Gough. Of the other seven, Mark Ealham is the only one who should bother to keep his mobile phone charged up and switched on.

This shows that bowlers are at more risk from selectorial whim than batsmen and that the search goes on for an amalgam which, in harness, can be pretty sure of pitching the ball on a handkerchief rather than being uncertain whether they could hit a tarpaulin. That is a different kind of continuity and Ed Giddins, who has taken 22 wickets for Warwickshire so far this season, may be the latest to benefit from it.

The roles of Stewart and Atherton, of course, have now shifted significantly. After 52 Tests, a record which may come to be seen as odd by historians and which will take seamless success on a grand scale to be overtaken, Atherton's tenure as captain is at an end. There is a natural fascination in how differently his successor will approach a stern task. He was not especially inspirational in his five seasons as Surrey's captain - at least in terms of trophies - but his hard-nosed competitiveness and perpetually encouraging voice will be immediately noticeable.

It was a constant, if mysterious criticism of Atherton's leadership that he could not be seen or heard cajoling his men. It will not be possible to say the same of Stewart, though whether this equates with tactical nous remains to be seen. Atherton may consider himself fortunate to stay in the side. He has made only 456 runs at an average of just over 20 in the past two series and will be picked on past class rather than current form.

While Hussain, Stewart and Thorpe have each made more than 700 runs in the two series since Graveney took over, only Thorpe averages above 40. The batting has not, in the modern parlance, functioned well as a unit. That unit now has an another, tentatively established, member in the formidably talented Mark Ramprakash, who was a revelation in the West Indies. This leaves an opening partner to be found for Atherton.

Darren Maddy is the name on everybody's lips, and no wonder. A one-day innings of 93 not out last Wednesday, which should have nothing to do with it, seemed merely to enhance his claims. Maddy, for sure, has been in rich form in the Benson and Hedges matches. He was also enormously successful on England A's winter tour and the feeling is that he has what it takes to to play on the bigger stage. Still, his preparation this season for possible entry into the hardest cricketing arena of all has been first-class innings of 2, 0 and 24 not out.

If that does not necessarily have to tell against him, he may be overlooked because of the desire for a left-hander to accompany Atherton. When facing a new-ball bowler as prodigious as Allan Donald anything likely to put him off his line is welcome and the left-right combination is fairly high on the list. This brings into contention Mark Butcher and Nick Knight, both deemed to be technically imperfect.

Butcher has not quite recaptured the serene patch of form he enjoyed two summers ago. Knight is in danger of becoming seen as purely a one- day player at international level, though if he could translate that outrageous brand of play into his Test batting he would be a player to make any bowler worry what might happen next. The selectors should be concerned about falling into the old trap of allowing Maddy to play himself out of form before picking him, but Knight may deserve first go.

The balance of the rest of the side will be crucial. England dare not start the tail at No 7 with an out and out bowler. Plumping for an all-rounder narrows the field to Ealham, who has never let England down, and Ben Hollioake. Ealham is a solid performer, of whom there are too few in England and has been too easily pigeon-holed. The trouble is he has yet to take a Championship wicket this summer. Hollioake is all potential and little achievement. It would be bold to pick him but perhaps now is the time.

Gough, in his pomp and pumped up, will lead the seam attack and if candidates are hardly queueing up to share it with him, Edgbaston is hardly the place to depend on spin. Of the 69 first-class wickets to have fallen there in first-class matches this season only two have been to spin. It is worth considering too that 14 of the others have been claimed by Giddins, who has wasted no time in presenting his credentials after his suspension. It could then be time for the return of Dominic Cork, once the game's blue-eyed boy. He has hardly been utterly convincing but he is a big-game player.

The leg-spinner Ian Salisbury has developed a googly at last after his winter in Australia, but Robert Croft may be the spinner who plays this time. It is a difficult side to pick because England remain in a difficult run and Graveney and his men must envy a settled South African squad who have settled well.

Possible squad: A J Stewart (capt); M A Atherton, N V Knight, N Hussain, G P Thorpe, M R Ramprakash, B C Hollioake, R D B Croft, D Gough, A R C Fraser, D G Cork, E S H Giddins, I D K Salisbury.