Cricket: Time to stand by their men

Stephen Brenkley says that long-term progress depends on keeping the faith
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The Independent Online
Those twinkling heroes of early summer, otherwise known as New England, have set the G-Men a stern examination of nerve. This is largely because they have come to resemble those notorious villains of previous years, otherwise known as old England.

There was no shame in having the Ashes wrenched away by a great team at Trent Bridge but the final surrender made lemmings and whirling dervishes seem like models of caution and propriety. It could not have been better designed to stretch the patience and alter the professed policy of the G-Men - the selectors David Graveney, Mike Gatting and Graham Gooch.

They had a right to expect their loyalty to be better repaid and must now decide either if it was worth bothering or if they had the right men. The squad for the sixth, final and dead Test at the Oval will reveal more than a hint of their conclusions: backing a bunch of losers and thus being adjudged as calm but misguided, or giving yet some others a chance and risking accusations of being adventurous but panic-stricken.

The Oval is a traditional venue for the selectors to pitch in somebody new. For 17 of the past 20 years the final Test of a series has been played there late in the summer and in nine of them at least one player has been picked for a debut. Six have become one-cap wonders, four others have appeared no more than four times, which makes the ground a graveyard for Test hopes.

As usual, the team will be picked with one eye on winning the match and one on the West Indies tour. But this year, that is not all. Looming large in any discussion of the team's composition will be the question of who captains them.

Mike Atherton has led England for 45 Test matches over four years. It was at the Oval in 1993 that he took them to victory in only his second match, a result which was heralded as a new dawn. It was also a cruelly false one. Doubtless he will have given his position serious consideration, doubtless the selectors will have done it for him as well. It would be to England's advantage if they were all to reach the same conclusion. Atherton should stay in command. If he has not yet completed the job which he undertook he is as near to it as he has ever been. England may not be walking in sunny uplands but they are not as enveloped by thunder clouds as some have suggested.

Of course, it was disappointing to lose and it was shocking to see a team in which so much faith had been invested give it all away on the fourth afternoon in Nottingham. Yet deep down the truth was well known back in May: Australia were the better side and England would do well to compete.

For most of a season which has become progressively harder they have done precisely that. Australia did not become regular winners by constant experiment. From the start of the campaign in which they regained the Ashes in 1989 they have used 46 players in 82 matches, England 82 in 87.

England will attain Australia's state only by the continuation of continuity. Atherton would seem to be central to that. He is obviously more relaxed in charge these days and if he is not a tactical magician then who, without a bowler capable of scaring the daylights out of the opposition, is? Atherton's form is pretty irrelevant for he is obviously still a player of high class.

Nor are mass evictions the answer. There is general agreement that this is, give or take, the best team England could have fielded. None of the batsmen should be dispensed with altogether but it may have crossed the selectors' minds to recall Mark Ramprakash and to look at Chris Adams of Derbyshire and Steve James of Glamorgan. If the Championship is to mean anything - and it should not be disregarded completely in favour of the potential and the hunches which saw favour alight on the Hollioakes - they are deserving figures. That is probably for the touring party.

There are virtually no bowlers in sight, Championship form or not, if poor Mike Smith has indeed been judged on one Test, unless the panel take a reckless gamble on the likes of a new Jamie, either Hewitt or Ormond.

The squad for the Oval, all of whom can be pencilled in for the tour, may be: Atherton (capt), Stewart, Crawley, Thorpe, Hussain, A Hollioake, B Hollioake, Croft, Headley, Caddick, Gough, Malcolm, Tufnell. That would be a holding of nerve indeed.

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