England keep faith with Plunkett and Mahmood

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The Independent Online

The benefits of England's six-wicket victory over Sri Lanka on Sunday became apparent yesterday when Stephen Harmison was omitted from the 12-man squad selected for the third Test in Nottingham. Had England failed to defeat Sri Lanka at Edgbaston the selectors would have felt under pressure to play their No 1 strike bowler in a desperate effort to win a series they were expected to secure comfortably.

The victory, along with the encouraging progress of Liam Plunkett and Sajid Mahmood, has allowed the selectors not to rush Harmison's rehabilitation from the shin injury which kept him out of action for eight weeks. It is a decision that, in the long run, can only be good for England.

After taking four wickets for Durham in last week's C County Championship match many believed Harmison would play at Trent Bridge on Friday, but he left the game against Sussex feeling minor discomfort around his shin. He was subsequently sent for a scan, the results of which were clear, and allowed him to play in yesterday's Cheltenham & Gloucester Trophy game against Leicestershire.

Harmison will join up with the England squad before the start of the Test where he will work with the team and be re-assessed by the medical staff. "Stephen Harmison is making good progress," David Graveney, the chairman of selectors, said. "But he is not yet fully match-fit and we have decided not to risk him at this stage. We were pleased with the team's performance at Edgbaston."

Harmison's absence allows Gloucestershire's Jon Lewis to retain his place in the squad but it is hard to see England changing their side for the final Test of the series. The third Test will start on Friday, rather than the traditional Thursday, to follow an ICC directive stating that governing bodies should attempt to give their players at least three days rest between Test matches. Special dispensation is given to Tests played during the Christmas and New Year period, where large seasonal crowds are expected in countries like Australia, South Africa and New Zealand. There Tests are permitted to begin on Boxing Day and finish on 30 December, with another starting two days later.

Player care has improved immeasurably since Duncan Fletcher became England coach in 1999, and he explained why he is reluctant to rush the return of Michael Vaughan, Ashley Giles, Simon Jones and Harmison. "We have spent a lot of time developing them as players," he said. "We don't want to rush them back early because then, normally, another injury crops up. They pick up another injury because they are compensating for the injury they are recovering from, and we've got to be careful with that. They are all important players and we want to make sure that they all come back."

A player who will need plenty of Fletcher's attention over the coming months is Monty Panesar, England's left-arm spinner. Panesar's cricket when he is in the field is a complete contradiction. From the moment he sets off to bowl he looks the part, exuding elegance, quality and poise. Yet when you take the ball off him he becomes a penguin stuttering along the ice.

Panesar's fielding is reminiscent of that of Devon Malcolm, the former England fast bowler. Malcolm toured the West Indies in 1989-90 and Micky Stewart, the England coach, spent hour after hour working on his fielding. On one occasion Stewart was hitting high catches to Malcolm, who was dropping as many as he caught, and in frustration he asked him what the problem was. With most of the England team watching from the shade Malcolm shouted that the sun kept getting in his eyes. Stewart suggested that he "get the other side of it" - change the angle at which he came in so that it did not get in his eyes. To which Malcolm said: "How can I? It's millions of miles away."

Those of us watching fell off our chairs laughing because an incandescent Stewart had absolutely no idea what to say or do. Fletcher's recent emotions must have replicated those of Stewart, and he admitted that Panesar's poor fielding could cost him his place.

"He obviously knows he is under a lot of pressure," Fletcher said. "He is working hard at his fielding and batting, and we'll just have to monitor that in the next couple of months. You have to look at the total package and ask: 'what does he contribute to the side?'

"We may have to consider that crowds in other parts of the world may not be quite so jovial towards Monty as home crowds, but at the moment we've just got to concentrate on beating Sri Lanka."

Malcolm's fielding did improve, and it is to be hoped Panesar's does too. He is the best spinner England have.

Sri Lanka (probable): M Vandort, U Tharanga, K Sangakkara (wkt), M Jayawardene (capt), T Dilshan, T Samaraweera, F Maharoof, C Vaas, N Zoysa, M Muralitharan, L Malinga.

England team for Trent Bridge

Third Test v Sri Lanka, starting Friday:

A Flintoff (Lancashire, capt)

Age 28 Tests 61

M E Trescothick (Somerset) 30 71

A J Strauss (Middlesex) 29 26

A N Cook (Essex) 21 4

K P Pietersen (Hampshire) 25 13

P D Collingwood (Durham) 30 10

G O Jones (Kent, wkt) 29 28

L E Plunkett (Durham) 21 4

M J Hoggard (Yorkshire) 29 53

S I Mahmood (Lancashire) 24 2

M S Panesar (Northants) 24 5

J Lewis (Gloucestershire) 30 0