England take long look at short tail

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The Independent Online

In assessing their team for the Fourth Test, the England selectors would do well to pay heed to the fate of Brad Dexter. This is not the long- forgotten, less distinguished brother of Ted, but the name of the actor nobody can recall from The Magnificent Seven.

In assessing their team for the Fourth Test, the England selectors would do well to pay heed to the fate of Brad Dexter. This is not the long- forgotten, less distinguished brother of Ted, but the name of the actor nobody can recall from The Magnificent Seven.

The temptation to opt for seven batsmen for the crucial match beginning at Headingley on Thursday is huge, but it is also distinctly possible that England will end up with their own version of Brad (with poor Graeme Hick cast in the role), which could easily have an effect on the rest. Less magnificent seven than moderate septet.

The reasons for erring in this direction are apparently persuasive. The pitch is likely to be difficult and will not require a specialist spinner; England have enough trouble acquiring runs with six batsmen as it is; their captain, Nasser Hussain, is grotesquely short of form; Alec Stewart is, in any case, an all-rounder.

Not much of this can have cut any ice at the selection meeting on Friday night. Seven batsmen in Test matches has rarely been the fashion, because it tends not to work. It can unbalance the team and can breed a dependency culture: each batsman can depend on another to get runs.

The surface at Leeds guarantees any result but a draw, and 350 will be a solid total on it. But it is not conceivable to play an extra batsman to protect Hussain. Either he plays and bats at three or he drops himself, an option which is frankly daft. It was heartening to hear David Graveney, the chairman of selectors, speak so heavily in favour of Hussain last week. No England captain in history has had such a poor run - failing to get past 25 in 10 innings - but the old adage of class and form remains valid. Never mind Brad, England could do with Yul Brynner coming through.

The most telling, maybe clinching, case for playing seven batsmen is provided by Alec Stewart. It was put pretty well by the coach, Duncan Fletcher: "In many teams there are six batsmen and the wicketkeeper bats at seven. All right, then list our six batsmen, put Stewart down at seven and then move him up to five. What's the difference?" Simple, mightily effective logic.

They should ask themselves who fills the Brad role. Has Hick done enough to warrant a 10th recall? Is he the man for a crisis at No 7? The last successful occasion England played seven batsmen was at The Oval in 1993 and Mark Ramprakash was the seventh, scoring 64 in the second innings. As Graveney said, Ramprakash has done as he was asked and returned to his county to make runs.

The other excuse for shoring up the order is the lack of requirement for a specialist spinner. If there were, it would only complicate the issue further, because there is not one good enough for Test cricket. This will crop up again at The Oval and, more pertinently, for the winter tours of Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Three will be needed for those trips. Three international spinners in England! They might as well take the Spice Girls.

There will be more of this, but for now it is certain that Robert Croft, the latest England cricketer to be reinvented only to find that the prototype does not stand up to scrutiny in proper conditions, will not feature on Thursday.

The Brad Option begins to look positively alluring, as it leaves four seamers. The quartet who performed at Old Trafford will obviously be retained, and will be supplemented in the squad by Matthew Hoggard. Alex Tudor and Alan Mullally have done enough to be mentioned. One wonders if the selectors had the courtesy to nod in the direction of Gus Fraser.

Tudor has rediscovered form after a disappointing winter tour but there are surely still question marks over his temperament for the big time. Mullally, the second best one-day bowler in the world, suddenly cannot stop taking wickets in the County Championship but presumably will rediscover that secret when he pulls on an England Test shirt again. His much-vaunted, much-needed swing comes and goes, and usually goes in Tests.

The present quartet of seamers looks the part. Two notes of caution. White, for all that he was constantly impressive against the West Indies left-handers in Manchester, has still taken only three wickets in the series. There remains a nagging thought, and it centres around a point raised by Graveney himself back in May. It was about young fast bowlers emerging quickly. When they do, will England play them? The nightmare scenario of Steve Harmison making his debut against Australia next summer keeps recurring.

The case of Andrew Flintoff, meanwhile, becomes ever more a diversion. Flintoff is a cricketer of immense promise, the sort who could have the world at his feet while emptying bars. The cortisone injection - the 10th - into his back injury last week does not seem to augur well for the future of his bowling.

He is clearly unhappy about it, but the England management assure us that they have his interests as well as the country's at heart. They want him to bowl, they have undoubtedly handled the issue indelicately. Flintoff was then indelicate himself, going out for a few drinks - and thus filling bars - the day after the injection. Foolish but endearing at the same time. But let us not forget that this fuss is over a chap who has played nine Tests and has a batting average of 16 and a bowling average of 55. If they were the other way round, the nation would be in a state of mourning right now.

Flintoff's condition is a test of the efficacy of central contracts. It would be handy for England if he was fully cured, but this looks unlikely. His back has been intermittently sore for eight years. His weight is another diversion, but in the action of bowling at least it must be putting his injury under more pressure. Something else: Flintoff's bowling would surely be a bonus to future England sides, not a necessity. Look at the way he bats.

But for now he is deflecting attention from the matter in hand. The two sides left Manchester taking almost equal succour from the draw. Both are a long way from being among the world's best sides, but they are a beautifully matched couple of mid-table bruisers. England might just have the edge. Their batting remains worryingly fragile but in Michael Vaughan and Marcus Trescothick they have unearthed a couple of true quality, the one through good old-fashioned selectorial hunch, the other through luck.

West Indies are still reliant on Brian Lara, and despite the paeans of praise composed in honour of his most recent Test hundred, the truly memorable century at Old Trafford was notched by Stewart. They are still in it, but their second-string bowling is precisely what batting like England's needs.

Seven batsmen and four bowlers it is then for the home side. It may be enough. If only they could call on Ted Dexter.