England must not risk a gem called Giles

Fletcher in quandary over the dearth of quality spinners as Key and Tremlett debates add to conundrums
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England begin a potentially momentous international season on Thursday with the first of two Test matches against Bangladesh. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that a five-course king's banquet with trimmings is starting with a couple of bowls of watery gruel. One has to be digested before the other is served.

England begin a potentially momentous international season on Thursday with the first of two Test matches against Bangladesh. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that a five-course king's banquet with trimmings is starting with a couple of bowls of watery gruel. One has to be digested before the other is served.

Bangladesh will give their all and compete honourably but they will be swept aside, as Zimbabwe were summarily dispatched two seasons ago. All England can do is to try to hone their own game in readiness for the Ashes.

In not saying very much at all during a half-hour briefing on the lip-smacking summer ahead on Friday, England's coach, Duncan Fletcher, mused that they could only look after their own game and build up some momentum.

"It depends on the make-up of the individual; some might find it difficult against Bangladesh and easier against Australia," he said. But against Bangladesh there is everything to lose and nothing to gain.

Fletcher was relatively upbeat about England's chances of regaining the Ashes and the state of the team. He seems to have been heartened by their overall display in the one-day Champions Trophy victory at Edgbaston last September. He proffered it as evidence but, substantial though it was, he is shrewd enough to know that it does not quite make the case. "The only areas we have a problem are in back-up to the all-rounder and back-up to the spinner," he said.

The significance of this comment was reinforced yesterday when it became clear that Ashley Giles is doubtful for the match at Lord's. He has had a cortisone injection in the right hip he injured a fortnight ago. It was still uncomfortable a day later, and it will be deter-mined tomorrow whether the left-arm spinner is fit. In a year, he has become a fulcrum of the England side, and it would undoubtedly make more sense for him to miss the series against Bangladesh rather than risk aggravating the injury before Australia's arrival.

Giles will have an important holding role to play against the world champions come July - and boy, will Australia try to undermine him. To risk him now would be the height of folly. Gareth Batty, who has been the second spinner on the past three England tours, would almost certainly be called up as cover, but Flet-cher's comments were hardly a ringing endorsement.

Batty is a competent off-spin bowler but he may not be an international one. In his five Test matches so far, all abroad, he has taken 10 wickets at 68.9 runs each, and in his most recent, at Antigua, he took 2 for 185, of which 130 were scored by Brian Lara on his way to 400 not out.

Maybe in time Batty will make a Test bowler. Maybe not. The subject of how long it takes to become embedded in international cricket was something else touched on by Fletcher.

He was not about to explain precisely why the selectors have preferred Ian Bell to Robert Key in the middle order, but a week after the decision was made it still seems slightly odd. That Bell has it in him to make big runs for England is not in doubt. But Key batted at three in the most recent series, and without being a huge success was not a dismal failure. Omitting him seems to go against the selec-tors' declared intention to give players a proper chance.

Key has played 15 Test matches, all of them strictly speaking as a replacement for an injured batsman, and he has now been dropped four times. Key has made errors and has got out softly when seemingly set, but this is hardly giving him the opportunity to nail down a place.

Fletcher said that in England it seemed that players were allowed about five matches before it was deemed they had a problem. He cited Matthew Hayden, Australia's thunderous opener, as someone who took 50 matches before feeling he belonged. Another legendary Antipo-dean example is Steve Waugh, who in his first 41 Test innings averaged 30, made 19 scores of 20 or under and then went on to average 50 and make 32 hundreds.

In Key's case, he already has the highest individual score by a current England player - 221 against West Indies at Lord's - and has an average of 31. Everybody, from David Graveney, the chairman of selectors, down, insists that Key is not out of the frame.

The panel were actually discussing four players for two places. The men in question were Key, Bell, Graham Thorpe and Kevin Pietersen. Fletcher conceded that it was a contentious judgement call which had been extremely difficult. "But is it all black and white? There are grey areas." There are, but it might be wise not to talk of how long it takes players to become accustomed to international cricket when they are so easily jettisoned. Key will find it hard to get back now, not least because the siren calls for Pietersen will only grow louder. Pietersen muddied the waters more yesterday while making bigger waves in scoring a 99-ball century for Hampshire, his second in successive matches.

Graveney was impressed with how Pietersen handled himself after failing to make the team for the First Test. His many supporters went into bat on his behalf, most notably Ian Botham, whose language was blunt but who did not actually say who he would have omitted instead. Pietersen recognised that he had not made enough early-season runs, and that his three one-day hundreds in South Africa did not amount to sufficient evidence of a method for Tests.

This reaction will have done him no harm, and Fletcher was being candid rather than undiplomatic when he said he was sure that at some stage both Pietersen and Chris Tremlett would get an opportunity.

In the case of Tremlett, it is hard not to think England have missed an opportunity. If Giles is unfit, the probability is that they will play an extra seamer, meaning a debut for Jonathan Lewis. Lewis has become an admirable bowler, who knows where he is bowling and why, but the feeling persists that Tremlett's height and bounce will make him the more difficult proposition.

The selectors made a hard call among the batsmen but avoided it among the bowlers.