England will stay on toes if allowed a comfort zone

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The Independent Online

England were rewarded for their bravery in Wellington. The dropping of the wayward Stephen Harmison was inevitable, but ditching Matthew Hoggard too? Very few expected England's selectors to wield such a sharp blade. Dispensing with a pair of bowlers who have a combined tally of 460 Test wickets takes nerve. When the selectors get it wrong they take it in the neck: on this occasion they should be congratulated.

The decision seemed to give Michael Vaughan's team the jolt they required, although the performance during the second Test was far from faultless. England's top six still seem allergic to three-figure scores and the fielders need to sharpen up.

The handling of Harmison and Hoggard suggests that a central contract no longer guarantees a player his place. Andrew Strauss found this out when he was omitted from England's tour of Sri Lanka . England's two most experienced bowlers will return to their counties next month knowing they need to impress.

It is hard to believe such a bold decision would have been made under the previous regime. Duncan Fletcher, the former England coach, and David Graveney, the former chairman of selectors, showed huge loyalty to senior players possessing central contracts, especially those who won the Ashes in 2005.

It appears the new selection committee, which comprises Geoff Miller as national selector, Peter Moores, the England coach, and James Whittaker and Ashley Giles as selectors will not be as tolerant. It is just as well because all good things come to an end. There were only four Ashes survivors – Paul Collingwood does not count as he played in only one Test in the 2005 Ashes – in the team who won at the Basin Reserve.

But there is a delicate balance between dropping a couple of players to give a side a much-needed kick up the backside and making them fearful for their place in the team. Most sportsmen perform at their best when they feel comfortable. The current England set-up creates that type of environment much better than the past.

When Nasser Hussain took over as England captain he wanted his side to feel like a 19th county, a group of players whose main occupation was playing for England. What took place before he took charge was unacceptable. On most occasions the team would gather on a Tuesday following a match with their counties, have a couple of nets and then enter a Test on a Thursday.

There are many who believe central contracts breed complacency and with certain individuals that may be true, but the good they have brought far outweighs the bad. The current team, along with all those that have benefited from central contracts since the summer of 2000, have a far greater togetherness than those of the late Eighties and Nineties. Then the chainsaw approach of the selectors made it impossible for the team to form any sort of spirit. Most players had no idea whether they would be playing in the next Test. In the 1989 and 1993 Ashes series England used 29 and 24 players respectively in a six-Test series. The door of the England dressing room was as busy as Oxford Circus Underground station.

The policy, or lack of it, and the insecurity that random selection created produced a very selfish breed of player, and the team suffered. In the late Eighties the players became so disenchanted with the whole set-up that many of them agreed to go on a rebel tour of South Africa.

England are nowhere near reaching a similar position and the current group will not allow such chaos to reign again, but the plight of the team then should serve as a reminder to those who demand wholesale changes whenever the national side are going through an iffy period.

l New Zealand are considering playing Tim Southee, an uncapped 19-year-old fast bowler, in the deciding Test match in Napier, which begins on Friday night. McLean Park is expected to be a batsman-friendly surface and Southee's ability to swing the ball could be significant. He impressed against England in the two Twenty20 matches at the start of the tour before representing New Zealand at the Under-19 World Cup in Malaysia, where he was named the player of the tournament.

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