England's selectors have doubtless been conducting their latest conversations to a familiar refrain. They will have examined, appraised and checked their interminable list of bowlers and probably been tempted to conclude that there is water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink.
At least eight specialist seam bowlers will have formed part of their discussions for the Test touring party for the West Indies, which is due to be announced on Tuesday, but many of these, perhaps most, may not be capable of delivering an over by the time the series begins in early March. An apparent monsoon may actually be closer to a drought.
In the 12 Tests that England have played since the start of last season, they have used 12 seamers, including pukka all-rounders, and 10 different new-ball partnerships. Recent events in Sri Lanka demonstrated that they are no closer to continuity.
Four fast bowlers will be included in the party of 16, as well as a two seam-bowling all-rounders. The long-distance telephone network will have received a severe test of its proficiency in the past few days. The chairman of selectors, David Graveney, is still hobbling about his home in Gloucestershire after a double knee operation, the coach, Duncan Fletcher, is in South Africa. But neither they nor the other two selectors, Geoff Miller and Rodney Marsh, nor even the captain, Michael Vaughan, will supply the most influential voice in discussions.
As Graveney emphasised, the panel must pay complete regard to what is said by the England doctor, Peter Gregory. His verdicts on fitness will dominate proceedings. The medical notes on three men, two of whom did not play throughout the 2003 season, will have been closely scrutinised.
Andrew Caddick and Simon Jones both appear to have recovered from injury; the one a veteran of many campaigns, the other hardly with his toe in the Test waters, but both with a part to play. Then there is Stephen Harmison, believed to be fit again, but with doubts about his readiness for the fray refusing to recede.
"We have to listen to Peter Gregory and his input will be crucial," said Graveney. "In view of what has happened last year in Australia, we must be sure that we don't select players who aren't going to last.
"The medical team on tour simply can't treat ongoing injuries as well as those that are bound to crop up, otherwise it'll be chaotic. The man with the most to do is Andrew Caddick, because he is still not bowling. Simon has been bowling and will go on the Academy tour in late January, but the same thing applies to both, and that is months and months out of the game at all levels, not just Test cricket."
If Graveney will be reluctant to pick them, he was careful not rule out either, and the question is begged about why Caddick is being denied an Academy tour spot to India. If England are to win in the West Indies for the first time in 36 years and six series, their seam attack will almost certainly be instrumental. The type matters as much as the quality.
Caddick, who is recovering from a back operation, will provide bounce on pitches that may not be as quick as of yore but are still far from sluggish compared to those in the subcontinent. Jones, who suffered a horrific knee injury in the First Test match against Australia in November 2002, has painstakingly and bravely fought his way back to health. His raw pace commands attention.
Harmison has the bounce and the pace and was showing signs of breaking through when he last appeared. But he is in danger of becoming known as an enigma as much as a bowler, and his early departure from Bangladesh merely prompted further speculation. For all his well-meant protestations, the stories of a diffidence bordering on reluctance keep being trotted out.
Without any of that trio, England will not seem so effective. Of the others, James Anderson and Andrew Flintoff seem certain to go. Anderson has not managed to sustain his electrifying start - not many could - but he remains a tremendous prospect. We should not yet be expecting him to lead or carry the attack.
Then there are Matthew Hoggard, Richard Johnson and Martin Saggers, all given honourable mentions by Graveney, who knows England will be expected to win despite the long gap. In erring on the side of caution the selectors somehow have to give themselves the best chance of beating the West Indies, who are again in disarray. An attack, say, of Anderson, Johnson, James Kirtley and Flintoff will lack both experience and potency.
After that prolonged debate, the selectors should whistle through the rest: six batsmen, two all-rounders, two spinners and two wicketkeepers - if only because, except in the latter department, they are hardly spoiled for choice. Rumours have been circulating about Nasser Hussain's fitness for duty, but they should remain just that. The fringe batsman now is Andrew Strauss (ahead of Ed Smith and Robert Key). Robert Croft's retirement from international cricket makes the spinners still easier to choose.
The one-day squad will detain them long enough only in deciding whether Vikram Solanki and Anthony McGrath should travel. They will. But there is a long time between now and departure, plenty of time for a whole bowling attack to break down.
Test party: M P Vaughan (Yorkshire, capt); M E Trescothick (Somerset); M A Butcher (Surrey), N Hussain (Essex), G P Thorpe (Surrey), P D Collingwood (Durham), A Flintoff (Lancashire), R Clarke (Surrey), C M W Read (Nottinghamshire, wkt), G O Jones (Kent, wkt), A F Giles (Warwickshire), G J Batty (Worcestershire), S J Harmison (Durham), R L Johnson (Somerset), J M Anderson (Lancashire), S P Jones (Glamorgan).
One-day squad: M P Vaughan (Yorkshire, capt); M E Trescothick (Somerset), V S Solanki (Worcestershire), P D Collingwood (Durham), A J Strauss (Middlesex), A Flintoff (Lancashire), R Clarke (Surrey), I D Blackwell (Somerset), A F Giles (Warwickshire), R L Johnson (Somerset), G J Batty (Worcestershire), R J Kirtley (Sussex), A P McGrath (Yorkshire), C M W Read (Nottinghamshire, wkt), J M Anderson (Lancashire).Reuse content