England choose scalpel over the axe

One of the grand traditions of the English Season, to be fitted around Ascot, Henley, Glyndebourne, Wimbledon, the Proms and the Lord's Test, is rebuilding the English cricket team. Somehow, the timing of the last two now seems to coincide, but this is a shade premature for a new construction, before the first crunchy homegrown strawberry has been plucked and the first decent Pimm's poured. The beginning of the Test rubbers in mid-May simply means that the low point was reached earlier.

One of the grand traditions of the English Season, to be fitted around Ascot, Henley, Glyndebourne, Wimbledon, the Proms and the Lord's Test, is rebuilding the English cricket team. Somehow, the timing of the last two now seems to coincide, but this is a shade premature for a new construction, before the first crunchy homegrown strawberry has been plucked and the first decent Pimm's poured. The beginning of the Test rubbers in mid-May simply means that the low point was reached earlier.

As it happens, there are unlikely to be wholesale changes in terms of new faces when the team for the Second Test, starting on Thursday, are announced this morning. Rather, the tinkering with the structure is likely to have taken the form of discussing a few familiar names (and perhaps including one or two), not all of whom would necessarily qualify as bricks. Of the batsmen, Graham Thorpe and the unlucky, centrally-contracted Michael Vau-ghan will have been mentioned and perhaps discarded. Of the bowlers, Dominic Cork and the old warhorse, Angus Fraser, will have been in the frame. Expect at least one to appear and for errant seamer Ed Giddins to be absent for quite some time.

There are several reasons for the selectors' reluctance to go in for drastic action, the chief of which is that it never really works. They will also be anxious not to be seen to panic, or to admit that they were wrong in the first place. The introduction of central contracts will constantly concentrate their minds because while nobody without one should be ignored, those with one should always be favoured.

Otherwise, it would speak of selectorial mismanagement on a grand scale. Just in case, the England and Wales Cricket Board allocated an extra £750,000 on the advent of central contracts for running the England team. This takes account of the 12 contracted Test players (minus the injured Dean Headley, on whom they have collected the insurance), the 14 players in the one-day squad and compensation to their counties, per player, respectively, of £51,000 and £8,500.

There is enough left in the bank for them to use, if necessary, four uncontracted players per Test. If, however, they were to use 28 such men in the seven Tests there are these days, it could be said that the central contracts were not worth the paper they were written on (though mention that extremely quietly in the company of Simon Pack, the ECB's international teams director, who so laboriously put together the package not yet certain to work).

But the most telling argument for the retention of the team who lost so limply to West Indies, or at least for them to be shaking hands tomorrow morning with only old mates, is the shortage of options. Players are having trouble locating the path to the selectors' door, let alone knocking it down.

The wet weather and more indifferent pitches have made scoring difficult and devalued wickets, but it is difficult to remember a time when the next generation was quite so sparse. This might explain why, during the First Test, all four selectors were at Edgbaston most of the time (Nasser Hussain, the captain, and Duncan Fletcher, the coach, had to be, obviously) instead of being out in the shires. Between the First and Second Tests there has not been a Championship game for anybody to stake a claim.

So, it does not augur well for England again, neither in short nor medium term. But auguries do not have to become reality. England can take heart from having won not only the last Test they played at Lord's - the drubbing of Zimbabwe in May, you may recall - but also the last match there against West Indies.

It is that occasion in 1995 that may persuade the selectors it is too much of a risk to change the side who were outclassed on a hopelessly unsuitable pitch at Birmingham. Then, the debutant Cork, 23, took seven second-innings wickets and bowled England to a 72-run victory.

For one reason or another, Cork has played only 27 Test matches in the five years since, when England have played 56. One reason is inter-mittent loss of the away-swing which made him such a potent early force, another is a reputation for being an irritating little sod. "His attitudes both on and off the field are sometimes infuriatingly misguided," wrote former England coach David Lloyd in his recent autobiography.

But Lloyd also said that England need the Cork of old, who could be world-class: "It is not too late." Well, there seems a definite move in his favour but paradoxically it may be too early. He has taken 13 wickets this summer at 29.76 each, not tree-pulling-up form. A man with a better record against these tourists, a man who was jettisoned because the Australian pitches seemed to get the better of him, is Fraser. The mood seems to be going Cork's way.

England's cupboard is not completely bare of bowlers, as was shown by the call-up of Paul Franks to the one-day squad last week. Stephen Harmison, of Durham, who was in the squad for the first three Tests, is now injured with shin splints. The Yorkshiremen Matthew Hoggard and Chris Silverwood have caught some eyes. Hoggard has raw pace but this is probably too early, Silverwood merits encouragement if fit.

The case of Harmison is annoying in retrospect. When he was named in the first squad of the summer, David Graveney, the chairman of selectors, made a point of saying that fast bowlers tended to emerge suddenly, using the analogy of the Australian Brett Lee. Nobody doubted Graveney's word or Harmison's speed, but three Tests have gone by and he has not played. It is difficult not to feel that an opportunity has been missed.

The batting will probably be given another chance. Of the two on the outside, Thorpe has class, pedigree and a hundred in the last fortnight, Vaughan has the potential to possess the first two and a central contract. The broken little finger he sustained in the season's first Championship round could not have been more unfortunately timed.

If the system is to count for anything he should have first claim, and he should have it quickly. Teams, even successful ones (perhaps especially successful ones) should always evolve, and Vaughan is the future. He deserves a nod in the squad at least. Who to omit will be tough. It always is, but talk of dropping Andrew Flintoff is idle speculation. If it doesn't work out at Lord's the selectors may cut their losses and head for Glyndebourne.

Possible squad: N Hussain, M A Atherton, M R Ramprakash, G A Hick, A J Stewart, N V Knight, A Flintoff, R D B Croft, A R Caddick, D Gough, D G Cork, A R C Fraser.

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