England must answer wake-up call

Enforced changes have led to a patchy run, but now is the time to build the momentum again
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The Independent Online

After controlling proceedings for almost three days, England left Lord's last week with worse notices than the Da Vinci Code. Their attempts at catching were wooden, melodramatic and looked as though they must have been affected by overexposure to religious psychobabble.

Whatever the reason, England's peculiar fallibility ensured they were denied a victory that had looked inevitable before and during the First Test. Perhaps it was the best thing that could have happened to them.

Perhaps when they announce the squad this morning, they will be tempted to rush back players, such as Stephen Harmison, who have been responsible for so much of the glory of recent years. Perhaps everyone concerned in the First Test will be wiser come the start of the Second at Edgbaston on Thursday, when England will truly know that their year of non-stop cricket has kicked in.

Finish in Birmingham and they are on parade in Nottingham four days later, unless they can contrive an earlier finish - although that is not an occurrence that they should concern themselves with.

Rarely have this bunch of selectors had to earn their corn as they must now. They have to balance the needs of today against the imperatives of tomorrow. The past six months since England resumed their Test campaign, after you know what, have been fraught with concern and inconsistency. Injury has led to uncertainty, and uncertainty causes mistakes.

From the start of 2004 until the end of the 2005 season England played 23 Test matches in which they used 20 players, 12 of them in the Ashes, and 10 of whom played in at least 16 matches. Since then they have played seven matches and used 19 players including seven debutants.

More than anything, this probably explains their patchy returns. That run of 23 matches yielded 16 victories, embracing a record run of eight, and two defeats. The seven have included a solitary victory, albeit epic, against India in Bombay, and three losses.

It is what happens when a team are attempting to incorporate so many new players. It is perhaps especially so when the team are not supposed to be in transition. The constant alterations - not once have they played an unchanged side since the Fourth Test against Australia last summer - have usually been thrust upon them.

Yet it has undeniably given them a chance to blood new players while lightening the load on key men. That in turn prompts another observation because the lightening of the load means that these men should be fit come November in Brisbane.

November in Brisbane. No matter the strength of the rebuttals and however well intentioned they are, there is no question that it is impossible for anybody to avoid thinking about that day when England begin their defence of the Ashes. Yet they cannot afford to go into them with an indifferent summer behind them.

Momentum is an irritating buzz word in professional sport but without it you are in trouble. England need to harvest some with series victories at home this summer against Sri Lanka and, harder still, Pakistan.

If there was a wake-up call (to use another irritating buzz phrase) in Multan last November when England lost a Test they ought to have won, the Lord's draw was another loud ring on the alarm at home, inexperienced team or not.

The first call the selectors have to make is on Harmison. The chances they created at Lord's should persuade them to leave him out of the squad. Harmison's value to England is much greater than in the wickets he takes.

Indeed, for well over a year his average has been well into the thirties in each series, but his pace, bounce and demeanour have consistently given the opposition something to think about and usually something to worry about. The thought of going to Australia without him is enough to send you to a darkened room to watch the Da Vinci Code again and again.

That is why, unless the selectors are dead certain that his shin splints are recovered, they should overlook him and allow him to play for Durham at home this week and spend the evenings at home with his wife and their newly born third daughter.

Similar strictures should apply to Michael Vaughan. It is obvious that England need him. There was nothing particularly wrong with Andrew Flintoff's captaincy at Lord's and the fact that he overlooked Monty Panesar's bowling for much of two days was a red herring. Had England taken those catches nobody would have noticed: the chances were being created by seamers.

The fact that Flintoff seemed to turn to Flintoff in times of potential crisis was also meaningless. So does Vaughan, if Harmison is not available. No, what was missing was Vaughan's perpetual motion captaincy, his determination to keep things moving. He can react but he tends to avoid having to do so.

Flintoff is rightly fêted wherever he goes but the prospect of not having Vaughan in Australia is also unimaginable at present. Equally, the longer he is out, the less England are his team. This is another selectorial conundrum.

None of this can alter the fact that English cricket is in robust health. At last. This was confirmed yesterday by the announcement that NatWest, long-term sponsors, have signed a four-year deal covering one-day internationals, international Twenty20 and the domestic Pro40 League.

If it is unfortunate that this extends the life of 40-over cricket, which is good for nothing, it shows that sponsors have faith. NatWest looked around for other sports in which to plough their cash but after 26 years they liked the look of cricket more than ever.