England ask which way to turn for Oval

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The Independent Online

It may not be an existential dilemma to rival that once posed by the one-time Prince of Denmark, but England's selectors will have pondered long and hard before declaring their hand for the final Test of the summer.

It may not be an existential dilemma to rival that once posed by the one-time Prince of Denmark, but England's selectors will have pondered long and hard before declaring their hand for the final Test of the summer.

To win, or to draw? that is the question, and one that could be answered when England announce their squad tomorrow.

A 2-1 lead over the West Indies, going into the final Test, is a position unheard of since the Swinging Sixties. For that reason its novelty is dangerous, though following the euphoria of Headingley, few could blame David Graveney and his panel were they to announce an unchanged team. Yet The Oval has been a bountiful place for spinners this season and England will surely heed its call by adding a specialist tweaker to the 12-man squad that assembled in Leeds 10 days ago.

In an about-turn of their policy earlier in the series, when Robert Croft filled the role, the selectors are likely to favour a spinner turning it into, rather than away from, the West Indies' plethora of left-handers. Which means the role will be filled by either left-arm orthodox or right-arm leggies.

According to those around the shires, Phil Tufnell is still the slow bowler who consistently troubles batsmen the most. The Middlesex man has his advocates, such as the captain, Nasser Hussain, as well as his detractors, now thought to include the coach, Duncan Fletcher, in their number. But, whether you are for or against him, Tufnell remains the season's leading English spinner.

Warwickshire's Ashley Giles is thought to be the other main contender, though murmurs that wrist-spinners were also being considered (presumably the centrally contracted Chris Schofield rather than Ian Salisbury, who has been tried and discarded by England before) have surfaced.

Giles plays in today's NatWest final against Gloucestershire, but a recent injection into a troublesome Achilles tendon means he comes with risk attached. Given that Schofield's wrist-spin also comes with a high-risk tariff, certainly too high for such a crucial match, it is probably a choice, though not a straight one, between Tufnell and Giles.

The sticking point, and why the selectors are thought to be split on the issue, is that Hussain has already announced that those picked for The Oval will automatically go on tour. Tufnell, while a fine bowler, is not a good tourist, a fact Pakistan and Sri Lanka would confirm more rapidly that most.

It would be inconceivable, though, to think that selection for such a crucial Test should hinge on the words uttered by a grateful captain after Headingley. Tufnell and The Oval have become twinned like port and stilton and two of his three finest performances for England have taken place there.

But just as Christmas dinner would be the poorer without the first two, so too would be an Oval turner without Tufnell, wheeling away from the Pavilion End with half of "Sarf London" behind him.

The Middlesex man would certainly provide the more attacking option. Of course, Giles's ability with the bat would shorten the tail and give England greater security, but Tufnell, providing the mood takes him, is the more dangerous bowler.

If a spinner is required next Thursday, and it is virtually a nailed on certainty that one will be, the decision as to which player makes way for them will provide Hussain and Fletcher with one of their more onerous duties of the summer.

After the two-day win at Headingley none of the usual suspects spring to mind, and it would be unthinkable to dropeither Craig White or Graeme Hick after their telling contributions there. Presuming the captain's place is sacrosanct, the two most vulnerable players on recent Test form are Michael Atherton and Dominic Cork, a choice narrowed further by Cork's timely double century for Derbyshire.

It is not beyond the realms of possibility that Michael Vaughan could be promoted to open the innings with Marcus Trescothick, but it is unlikely. Despite Atherton's current status as Curtly Ambrose's rabbit, the opener is at his gritty best when he knows the parameters of his task - and that is making sure that England don't lose.

England squad (probable): *N Hussain, M A Atherton, M E Trescothick, G P Thorpe, A J Stewart, M P Vaughan, G A Hick, C White, D G Cork, A R Caddick, D Gough, M J Hoggard, P C R Tufnell.