Gough set to miss start of one-day tournament

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There is now the small matter of the World Cup to consider. It might not be the version of this particular tournament on most, or indeed any, minds at present, but the build-up starts this week.

There is now the small matter of the World Cup to consider. It might not be the version of this particular tournament on most, or indeed any, minds at present, but the build-up starts this week.

England will announce a squad of 14, perhaps 15, players for the triangular one-day NatWest Series next Wednesday. Essentially, they will be those who will compete for the most prestigious of all cricketing trophies (all right, maybe the Ashes apart) in South Africa next spring.

Doubtless the selectors will make a point of stating that it is not too late for excluded players to make a claim. But that will be merely paying lip service to old-fashioned proprieties. Only injury can now make a real difference to the composition of England's World Cup party.

It is important, nay vital, that all the players know precisely their roles and what they should be doing at any given moment. One-day matches might too often follow similar scripts but they can turn on seemingly small matters. The likelihood is that this will happen in the big games in South Africa. The teams who prevail will be those who keep their nerve in the tight moments, and that ability comes from having been there before.

To that extent it matters not whether England beat Sri Lanka and India in the competition which starts a week Thursday. What is important is that they continue to learn and develop. Nobody should imagine, however, they will do either of those things sufficiently well to progress to the business stages next spring.

For long enough, England have laboured badly at the short game. They have frequently used the excuse that this is because they are relative novices compared to the other senior nations. To which it should always be asked: "And whose fault is that?"

Nor is it necessarily so these days. The names selected this week will bear a striking similarity to those who went on the one-day sojourns last winter to Zimbabwe, India and New Zealand and avoided embarrassment, which represented significant advance on the previous summer.

"We've had a meeting already and we've picked most of the players," said the England captain, Nasser Hussain. "Now we'll all go away to think about it. I'm all for a centrally contracted one-day side and one day that will happen. But you still have to get the balance right and not take too many players around. By being around they can sit and learn about how to play at a higher level. But the balance comes between that and actually playing some cricket."

England are unlikely to go into the tournament with Darren Gough. He is looking healthy and tanned after his knee injury, having spent some of his recuperation in Lanzarote. Hussain could hardly overestimate his importance to England (if anything, it is greater in the one-day stuff) but said that he needed to be 100 per cent fit. The probability is that Gough will be asked to get some cricket with Yorkshire.

The selectors have developed a partiality for all-rounders which borders on obsession. This is understandable but needs to be tempered with ensuring that they are up to standard. The policy has turned up some unlikely international cricketers.

Paul Collingwood and Jeremy Snape fit perfectly into that category, but they have been sound picks so far: nerveless, willing players who have helped to improve England's fielding standards. Still, you are entitled to wonder if they are quite good enough.

England must decide whether to try to fill the gap left by Ben Hollioake's death. If they are seeking another all-rounder the nod may well go to Ronnie Irani. The Essex captain has been in outstanding form, is second in the one-day batting averages, not far below that in bowling and at 30 may not be too old. Equally, he has played 10 matches and is probably not up to it at the rarefied level. Then again, who is? Now may not be the time to prove the point again in Irani's case.

If they seek another all-rounder the selectors could do worse than summon Alex Tudor, and Ian Blackwell, another biffer from Somerset, is the sort who can turn games in a trice. The wicketkeeping position which caused such consternation last winter – it started with James Foster and ended with Marcus Trescothick – is likely to be filled by the 39-year-old Alec Stewart. Not the stuff of vision.

At least England are taking it seriously at last. Much too late for South Africa 2003, of course. One-day cricket might still be Test cricket's poor relation, but only in everything except crowd appeal and the money it generates.