Cricket: Test of faith for the tried and beaten

Stephen Brenkley suggests Old Trafford will be a watershed for the policy of continuity
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IT IS an examination of England's nerve now as much as their skill. In this Test series and the one before it they have apparently been, man for man, pound for pound and probably sledge for sledge, stronger than the opposition. They have talked the talk but too often have not walked the walk (the latter in just about every regard including rapid and willing response to the umpire's raised finger).

England find themselves trailing 1-0 to South Africa after being remorselessly hunted down and eventually outplayed in the Second Test. It is territory with which they are unhappily familiar but that does not diminish the significance of the Third Test, which begins at Old Trafford on Thursday. Despite the preponderance of Test matches these days, none is exactly a small game, but this one has already assumed a huge significance for England. On it may hinge public belief in the team, an entire selectorial policy and an early phone call to Australia from the ECB along the lines of: "About this winter, you know you're always saying your fourth team could beat us. Well, we were wondering..."

So far, for reasons not wholly explained by results, or actually not even touched on by results, the England establishment has stayed remarkably upbeat. Optimism for the winter tour of the West Indies was repaid with a 3-1 defeat. Close, but no cigar and definitely no Wisden Trophy. Confidence remained intact for the visit of the South Africans and when the one-day series went up the Limpopo last month it steadfastly refused to be dissipated.

The First Test began to explain the reasons for this and England under Alec Stewart's stewardship looked much less brittle. To Lord's then, their traditional unhappy hunting ground, but the opening session seemed only to confirm what England had been hinting at. With South Africa at 46 for 4 England were in command. Thereafter, it was all South Africa. The tourists were in for the long haul, the hosts were not.

South Africa made everything of Jonty Rhodes's two narrow escapes not long after he had arrived at the crease: a dropped catch and a no-ball off which he was caught. England had to bat in extremely testing conditions on Saturday morning - then again this was a Test match - and while to be out for 110 to bowlers making the most of them was no disgrace the feeling rent the air that they were ready for the taking.

The collapse on Sunday was more culpable. While Nasser Hussain's century was a fighting effort he owed the side somewhere in the region of 105 for the wafted drive he played the previous day while being apparently rooted to the ground. England want hearts, not feet, of oak.

To be one down in a five-match rubber with three to play is not quite a disaster but England have trodden this road too often before. By common consent the side are, more or less, the best that England can muster and the selectors have placed their faith in them. Nine of those who played in four or more Tests against Australia last summer, when the present panel was established, were picked in the squad for the first match of this series before injury intervened.

The loyalty has not yet reaped reward and, presumably, there comes a time when the policy has to be ditched. If the best players who, by their own admission, are more than a match for the opposition, keep losing, then it might be time to try some who are less than a match but who might win. That time has not yet been reached but Old Trafford is a watershed. Go two down and there will be no way back against these tourists, who have prospered by collective effort.

Regaining the initiative will demand this quality above all of England. They have to bat and bowl well together when it matters, not when it is too late.

The batsmen will again pick themselves. Steve James, who was belatedly called up for a belated debut at Lord's, will make way for a recovered Mark Butcher. A lot of tosh has been talked about James being ill-equipped for Test cricket, as though the selectors were wrong to take account of his County Championship runs. Well, if they do not pay regard to them how do they select a side. On purported class, or potential, or with a pin?

If James was supposedly irresistible a few days ago he is irresistible now. He is not, of course, because the selectors should have called up a left- hander to accompany Michael Atherton as opener. It seems elementary. The combination forces bowlers, new-ball bowlers at that, to alter their line. England blew it by ignoring Nick Knight.

As for the rest of the batting, several vague questions come a-begging. Is Graeme Hick's weight of runs heavy enough? Are the likes of Owais Shah and Andrew Flintoff ready? Could Knight be used in a middle- order role? The answer to them all is likely to be in the negative.

The renewed fitness of Darren Gough is crucial but Andrew Caddick (tried and untrusted) is again likely to be involved in discussions and both Ed Giddins and Melvyn Betts will feature. If they are to be used then it should be when there is a cause still at stake. It is possible that if a punt is to be taken it will be on Ben Hollioake. That really would be to ignore county contributions but it would also show that England had a nerve.

Possible squad: A J Stewart (capt), M A Atherton, M A Butcher, N Hussain, G P Thorpe, M R Ramprakash, M A Ealham or B C Hollioake, R D B Croft, D G Cork, D Gough, A R C Fraser, C E W Silverwood.