McGrath benefits from policy of risks

First Test: Upbeat Hussain returns to the helm to defend gambles on Gough's fitness and Thorpe's extended exile
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During their recent deliberations, the England selectors must have been heavily influenced by the season of vintage comedy films on lunchtime television. "That," as Hardy has repeatedly told Laurel this past fortnight, "is another fine mess you've got me into." On the one hand, for the First Test against South Africa, which begins on Thursday, the panel have harked back to the past by picking the redoubtable Darren Gough and his injured knee. On the other, they have declined to recall the newly settled middle-order batsman Graham Thorpe, preferring a quasi-continuity in the portly reliability of Anthony McGrath.

As expected, they have also kept faith with the veteran wicketkeeper-batsman Alec Stewart. It now looks a done deal that Stewart will go on his terms and not those that best suit the team. England may or may not beat South Africa this summer, but the sound of Australian nerves jangling at the sight of the squad was conspicuous by its absence.

In short, the dozen names announced for the match at Edgbaston represent neither one thing nor the other. The courage of selectorial convictions is present in some places, missing in others. It is, though, impossible to imagine that this combination will be regaining the Ashes in 2005.

The match also marks the return to England colours of Nasser Hussain, who is now captain only of the Test team. He is no longer a selector, so he will have to lead a team built by others. He is on weaker ground himself these days: he might have been on county duty during the one-day folderol of the past six weeks, but he can hardly have failed to notice that a happy-clappy England under Michael Vaughan won two successive competitions. Whether he likes it or not (and not is the word here) his position has been weakened.

Hussain, the most committed of all England captains, was positively chipper. When chip and Nasser are referred to in the same sentence it is usually to do with something on his shoulder. He defended the exclusion of Thorpe, the inclusion of Gough, and conveyed the impression that the Queen might have to abdicate before Stewart lets a young wickie have a go. Not that Hussain was showing much inclination to go himself.

"The game and the England team don't revolve around Graham Thorpe," he said. "It revolves around what has happened in the past two Tests and in the next few Tests. I know Graham Thorpe very well, and deep down in his guts he will feel the right thing has been done. He will want to be treated the way Anthony McGrath was. You have to treat people fairly and in the right manner, and if you treat people fairly they tend to respond to you."

There is an element of truth in this. Obviously people who feel as though they are being looked after will give you more. But when McGrath was chosen in April against Zimbabwe it was as an all-rounder, a replacement for the injured Andrew Flintoff. It was certainly not as a middle-order batsman; there were plenty of those who had attended the National Academy at great expense, unlike McGrath.

Still, the Yorkshireman, who is overweight by present England standards, did all that could have been reasonably expected. He looked at home and scored two half-centuries. But by staying loyal, when they could have taken a logical if harsh decision, the selectors are taking a huge risk.

As they are with Gough, as Hussain was candid enough to admit. Gough's knee withstood the pressures of the one-day season and he bowled excellently. But Test cricket, as the players and everyone else keep telling you, is a different ball game. Gough has been medically cleared, but there are those close to the England team who saw him every day during the limited-overs matches. They urged that he should be given more time.

"Nobody would expect Gough to have to prove himself as a bowler," said Hussain. "He had to prove his fitness. The selectors are taking a risk, but there comes a time when you have to take a risk." They were not, however, willing to gamble on Richard Johnson.

Hussain was in bristling form all round; woe betide South Africa if he stays this wide awake. The Vaughan interregnum has clearly made him aware of his mortality as a captain. He was ready for it. "Test cricket is different," he said. "Batsmen can't come at you as much and you've got to get somebody out like [South Africa's] Gary Kirsten, who can bat for 10 hours.

"There will be no problems with slotting back, the vibe is good in the dressing room. Nobody was more pleased than me for Michael Vaughan during the one-day series. He seemed to do everything right. Timing is important with the changeover, and I hope Michael is the captain one day." Hussain partly bracketed himself with Stewart when he said that there was a tendency to try to pension people off too early. As opposed, for instance, to keeping them on too long. "Stewart has kept well and batted well, why not squeeze every last ounce out of him.

"I've had a word with the selectors and said, 'Let's try to get this right'. You work to a three-year or five-year plan. If the selectors ring me up to say they think Michael Vaughan is ready, then that's fine by me. I love this job, as you know, but you have to move on. The day you wake up and you're no longer England captain, it hurts." Hussain clearly does not know when he wishes to depart. But he will see through this summer (unless England go 4-0 down) and he may like to finish after the winter tours to Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and West Indies. He would then have been England captain in 58 matches. The record he has said he wants would be his.

It may be time before then, for the good of the team. But it is not that time yet, though it is impossible to be confident that enough people in authority will recognise such a date. For now, there is South Africa. England begin as favourites, though before the end of the series the selectors will probably be scratching their heads in the bewildered, dumb fashion of Stan Laurel.

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