England dither over case for Croft

Hussain hints at sacrificing spinner for extra batsman today in gamble designed to thwart West Indies pace attack
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The Independent Online

Now we all know where Channel 4 got the idea for Big Brother from and it is not, as supposed, cribbed off a cult Dutch television show. Instead, the idea has clearly been culled from the dilemma that faces England's selectors before every home Test - which team member to get rid of.

Now we all know where Channel 4 got the idea for Big Brother from and it is not, as supposed, cribbed off a cult Dutch television show. Instead, the idea has clearly been culled from the dilemma that faces England's selectors before every home Test - which team member to get rid of.

This morning is no exception and as the Test series against West Indies - so rudely interrupted by a one-day triangular - resumes at Old Trafford with the score at 1-1, one person will find that he has been voted to sit the match out.

Up until the toss at 10.30am, their identity will be a mystery, though, due to some wily speculation on the part of your correspondent, the unfortunate soul can be narrowed down to one of Robert Croft, Graham Thorpe or Graeme Hick. By contrast, the West Indies have had their hand forced by injury, with their leading batsman Shivnarine Chanderpaul unavailable.

Given that the pitch looks bare and relatively dry, many would pick Croft to bowl his off-spin, but the captain, Nasser Hussain, delivered a warning about being lulled by the spin harpies of Old Trafford.

"The county strips tend to turn here, but my experience is that the Test pitches do not turn much at all," Hussain said yesterday, a comment that suggested England would probably play seven batsmen.

Last year's drawn Test here would tend to bear out Hussain's caveat. On a pitch that looked extremely spin-friendly - New Zealand's captain, Stephen Fleming, almost wept when he lost the toss - the Kiwis made 496 for 9 declared in their only innings with England's two spinners, Such and Tufnell, taking an unimpressive 6 for 225 between them.

Should Croft get the nod, the choice between Hick and Thorpe, probably to bat at No 6, is a bit of a lottery. Hick, on his umpteenth chance to prove his class, has not yet done so while Thorpe, making his way back after a sabbatical, has not exactly been in persuasive form either.

Leaving Croft out and fielding seven batsmen is a negative move last employed seven months ago in the now-discredited Test match against South Africa at Centurion Park. It also further disrupts a batting order yet to be settled upon. Indeed, the only certainty is that Marcus Trescothick will become Michael Atherton's 13th opening partner, while Hussain, himself still struggling for fluency, will bat at No 3.

Pitting debutant openers against the West Indies has rarely been cause for champagne, and tears have more often flowed as a result. In the 20 years that the West Indies have been terrorising batsmen with their fast bowlers, England have thrown 18 greenhorns into the fray. So far the average is 10.4 per innings, which (presuming most got two knocks) would not leave the Somerset man with much to do to better it.

But while some feel Trescothick might be better employed at No 6, with Michael Vaughan promoted to open, several factors are in his favour. Firstly, he has been a success in the one-day series that preceded it, so he knows he can mix it in elevated company. Secondly, the pitch looks to be the best batting strip of the series so far.

If it plays flat, England's batsmen can expect a lot more short stuff than usual, especially from Reon King. Trescothick prefers the ball short and, provided he does not forget where his off-stump is when they bowl around the wicket, his technique looks sound enough to cope.

Where question marks do exist is in Trescothick's mental capacity to step up to Test level. As Hussain revealed, this is rarely made in one giant leap.

"In Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh, Marcus will have two of the best new-ball bowlers against him," Hussain said. "But from what I've seen of him in the one-dayers and in the nets, and the way he conducts himself in the dressing-room, he's been impressive.

"He can play, but the 10 per cent left is the mental battle of Test cricket and that's the part we're about to find out about. Only then will we really know how good he is."

Two men who have proved their worth over the years at this level are Atherton and Alec Stewart, who both play their 100th Test. In an orgy of celebration that would put the Yanks to shame, there will be three presentation ceremonies to commemorate the feat before play starts this morning.

The pomp and circumstance might not be a bad thing and, providing both batsmen do not record ducks, it may even serve to get England back into Test mode after the four-week hiatus caused by the one-dayers.

"We really need to forget what's gone before and apply the psychological edge this morning," Hussain said. "West Indies are there for the taking after Lord's, but as Brian Lara has pointed out, for six of the seven days they have played the better Test cricket, so they probably feel the same about us. We must learn to win under pressure and in situations like this.

"This is the important end of summer and, while it was great for us to win the one-day series, this next month is what we'll be remembered for."

ENGLAND (from): M A Atherton (Lancashire), M E Trescothick (Somerset), N Hussain (Essex, capt), M P Vaughan (Yorkshire), A J Stewart (Surrey, wkt), G A Hick (Worcestershire), G P Thorpe (Surrey), C White (Yorkshire), R D B Croft (Glamorgan), D G Cork (Derbyshire), A R Caddick (Somerset), D Gough (Yorkshire).

WEST INDIES (from): S L Campbell, A F G Griffith, W W Hinds, B C Lara, R R Sarwan, C H Gayle, J C Adams (capt), R D Jacobs (wkt), C E L Ambrose, F A Rose, R D King, C A Walsh, N A M McLean.