England's upside-down batting order

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The Independent Online

Providing the weather stays fair, England could go into Thursday's first Test against Zimbabwe, with two 21-year old debutants in the side. Given the exciting potential of Chris Schofield and Stephen Harmison this is encouraging news, though one that is tempered by the fact that three of England's top six batsmen will be batting out of position.

Given a perfect world Nick Knight, Alec Stewart and Mark Ramprakash would all prefer to take guard in a different position to the ones earmarked for them at Lord's. The trouble is, England's cricket is almost never perfect, which means that players often have to endure the chops and changes simply to stay in the side.

If it is now understood that Stewart will probably never open the innings for England again - a role incidentally both he and Michael Atherton still feel is his best one - the same cannot be said of Ramprakash and Knight, who, according to David Graveney, the chairman of selectors, are set to open and bat six respectively.

The irony, and one given weight by the vagueness of Ramprakash's column for the Independent on Sunday, is that, on paper at least, it ought to be the other way round. Knight has opened for Warwickshire since leaving Essex in 1993, something Ramprakash has only just begun to do for Middlesex, and only then after the request had been made by England's coach, Duncan Fletcher.

It will not be an easy journey and Test cricket is not exactly flush with examples of middle-order batsmen becoming top-class openers. In recent times, the most successful has been Graham Gooch. After a nightmare start to his Test career in the middle order, Gooch made the transformation at Essex, where he spent three seasons in the wilderness working out the necessary changes.

Ramprakash will not have the same chance to do the groundwork away from the Test arena. But if that sounds an ominous task laden with extra anxieties, the truth is that Ramprakash - whose 38-Test career has been largely unfulfilled - would be under pressure wherever he batted.

Gooch, who captained Ramprakash when the batsman made his England debut eight years ago, believes he has all technique required to face the new ball. "When I did it, I had just two Tests to my name and knew I had to tighten up my game," said Gooch yesterday. "Mark has always had a solid technique and that won't be a problem. It's whether, after a stop-start career, he can see this as an opportunity, rather than a penance, that represents the biggest challenge."

Given a choice between batting in the middle order or opening the innings, Gooch reckons he would choose the latter every time. "When you take first strike you get the opportunity to shape the fashion of the game," he explained. "When you come in at five or six, the match has been more or less been determined for you.

"My advice to Ramps is to back yourself and to be philosophical. At Test level new-ball bowlers are always going to get you out with a good one from time to time, though this is more than offset by this great opportunity to set the agenda."

One area that Ramprakash needs to improve on if he and Atherton are not to get bogged down is pinching singles to keep the scoreboard ticking over, though if Ramprakash is overly cautious in his new role it may be a blessing in disguise. According to Gooch, Atherton is a far better player when he is playing his shots.

"When Mike looks to strike the ball, he tends to move his feet better," revealed Gooch. "The more aggressive he gets, the less he finds himself caught on the crease. That gives the opposition fewer chances of getting him out cheaply, which in turn must be good for England."

ENGLAND SQUAD (v Zimbabwe, First Test, Lord's, Thursday): N Hussain (Essex, capt), M A Atherton (Lancashire), M R Ramprakash (Middlesex), G A Hick (Worcestershire), N V Knight (Warwickshire), A J Stewart (Surrey, wkt), A Flintoff (Lancashire), C White (Yorkshire), A R Caddick (Somerset), D Gough (Yorkshire), S J Harmison (Durham), C P Schofield (Lancashire), E S H Giddins (Warwickshire).