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England may harness the pace of Harmison

The notion that central contracts would ease the selection process will be rapidly dismissed when David Graveney and his panel meet at Chelmsford this evening to pick the England squad for the first Test against Zimbabwe at Lord's on 18 May. Injuries to key players, and a damp start to the season, have left many short of match practice, leaving the selectors little option other than to resort to the old procedure of filling the gaps on hunch and hearsay.

The task, if not Herculean in scope, may require some discussion before the 13-man squad is announced tomorrow morning. From outside their centrally contracted core, England need to find replacements for Dean Headley (bad back), and Michael Vaughan (broken finger). In order to cover themselves regarding the weather, this means choosing two first-change bowlers of differing means and, providing Mark Ramprakash is set to open the innings with Michael Atherton, a middle-order batsman.

The time of year, with its seam-suited pitches, can confuse the issue. Does the injury to Headley mean England pick players who are in form now? Or should they select those who they think may be needed to beat the West Indies later in the summer, when pitches, as well as bowling, have become harder? As captain, Nasser Hussain is felt to favour the latter option, though the temptation to resort to the form horse has powerful precedents.

Continuity, one of the main reasons behind central contracts, is difficult when every dog who bowls seam up is having his day. In the last week alone, Ed Giddins, Angus Fraser, Alan Mullally, Chris Silverwood, Alex Tudor, Martin Bicknell, Steve Harmison and Matthew Hoggard have all been tipped as possible support for the main strike pair of Darren Gough and Andrew Caddick.

With Mullally and Silverwood carrying niggles, Fraser being seen as too old and Hoggard perhaps needing to impress more away from Headingley, only Bicknell, Giddins, Tudor and Harmison are likely to be central to the table talk.

To give themselves an option, the selectors will probably award one place to accuracy and the other to speed, making their final choice closer to the time when the pitch at Lord's has been assessed. It is then, too, that they will decide whether Chris Schofield's leg-spinners are going to be of more use than Craig White's brisk inswingers against a Zimbabwe side that tends to play spin pretty well.

If the weather prior to the match is hot and dry and England look to bat first and exploit a cracking pitch later in the game, the pace of Harmison, who appears to have made greater strides than Tudor recently, could make the final XI. Conversely if it is damp, and the pitch slow enough to require a "nagger", either Bicknell, who last played for England seven years ago, or Giddins, who made his debut last summer, will probably get the nod.

Filling the batting place provides an old dilemma, too. Do the selectors, despite a lack of runs this season, go for the proven class of Graham Thorpe? Or should they show faith in the renascent Nick Knight, who has just scoreda double-century againstGlamorgan, an innings watched by the new selector Geoff Miller?

Thorpe missed last winter's tour at his own request, a move that did not receive widespread sympathy and his stock may still be low. By contrast, word from Warwickshire is that Bob Woolmer has sorted Knight's technique out and got him back in the runs. The left-hander's problems, it seems, stem from a backlift that is all over the place. What Woolmer has done, after studying endless video footage, is to get Knight to pick his bat up in more or less the same arc.

But if the results look promising, Knight may well miss out if the selectors look towards the West Indies series, where Thorpe's experience will surely hold sway.

In some ways, Knight's forceful strokeplay would probably be better off complementing the accumulative style of Atherton at the head of the order. For the moment, though, that place appears to be earmarked for Ramprakash, though problems may occur with two slow-scoring batsmen opening together.

It is not inconceivable, against Zimbabwe's dripping-tap seamers, that one or both, may eventually be dissuaded from playing their natural game should the scoring rate dry up. If they are, expect a rethink sometime in June.

Possible England squad: (contracted players): N Hussain, M A Atherton, M R Ramprakash, G A Hick, A J Stewart, A Flintoff, C White, A R Caddick, D Gough, C Schofield. (Non-contracted players): G P Thorpe, E S H Giddins, S J Harmison.