Cricket: The Oval's bounce puts Malcolm into the frame: England selectors face predictable wrath as they take a final stab at putting together a side which has the beating of Australia

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The Independent Online
TOMORROW night, England's cricket selectors will have one final stab (an appropriate enough metaphor for what has become something of a pin-sticking operation) at picking a side to beat Australia. This is an exercise that has proved comfortably beyond them in 18 previous attempts, and, sadly, there are no overpowering reasons (other than Australia expiring from lack of motivation) to suppose that No 19 will be any different.

'There are always,' Keith Fletcher said the other day 'people ready to snipe at times like this,' as though he expected people to look upon eight defeats (most of them good hidings) in his nine matches as manager, and a seven-year record against Australia of lost 12 won 0, as a minor hiccup in life's rich tapestry.

It would help the selectors' credibility, of course, if they decided to try something different to the method employed before the last match, and picked the side after, rather than before, a conversation with the groundsman. Otherwise, having selected only one spinner for grassless Edgbaston, they will probably pick three for The Oval and turn up to find a herd of goats grazing quietly on the pitch.

However, The Oval's traditional extra bounce ought to be enough for Devon Malcolm to get a game, and it is also unlikely that Steve Watkin, as happened at Edgbaston, will be informed on the match that he is playing - but only for Glamorgan. Mark Ilott has played in the last three Tests, but something other than honest endeavour is required at this level.

The first thing the selectors have to sort out is whether they are picking a side to try and win this one game, or more realistically to try not to lose it, or whether they want to experiment before the West Indies. As one match is no sort of experiment, however, this discussion should be a comparatively short one.

There is, therefore, no real substance to the speculation that Graham Gooch might be omitted. England's selectors have (often unfairly, given the raw materials at their disposal) seldom been accused of being far-sighted and imaginative, but to leave out your best batsman when you are being stuffed out of sight really would be a cue for hysterical laughter.

On the other hand, the batsman quite properly regarded as England's best after Gooch, Robin Smith, might find his own place up for serious discussion. Smith is an automatic choice for the West Indies, where the leather seldom arrives below nostril height, but when the ball is delivered at half the speed, and is revolving like an old 45rpm record, Smith gives the impression of a man with a wasp down his trousers.

Unlikely though it is that he will be omitted, there is a strong case to be made for replacing him with a strong player of spin, who is also already pencilled in for the winter tour: Mark Ramprakash, for example. Other than that, the only serious discussion involves whether or not to play six specialist batsman and a specialist keeping wicket, or seven, with Alec Stewart keeping the gloves.

Stewart is a perfectly good wicketkeeper standing back, but his credentials standing up have seldom mustered close scrutiny, even though Keith Fletcher has started to show the first signs of fraying at the edges whenever this subject (as it does in almost every Test) crops up.

'Alec is every bit as good as Ian Healy,' was one of Fletcher's slightly tetchy comments after the Edgbaston Test, which, if Fletcher thinks about it, is as good a reason as any for giving the job to someone a bit better. As ever, though, the balance of the side will doubtless be quoted as the essential component to Stewart doubling up.

The Australian right-handers played the ball turning into them at Edgbaston with such comparative ease that Philip Tufnell is in line for a recall, thus bringing further wrath on the selectors' heads from all those who regard John Emburey's batting as nothing less than a national treasure.