McGrath's day - tomorrow must wait

First Test: Surprise call for Yorkshire's captain speaks volumes as England concentrate on Zimbabwe not Australia
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Back in 1995, a 19-year-old batsman from Bradford appeared as 12th man for England in a Test match at Headingley. It was the usual arrangement: a promising local lad provides cover and has a taste of what he can expect in the future.

That winter, by then 20, he went on England A's tour to Pakistan. In only his seventh first-class match he scored his maiden century, a mature innings in testing conditions which had sober judges singing from the rooftops. He went on another A tour the following winter and pulled up fewer trees.

And that was about that for Anthony McGrath and England. Until yesterday – when the selectors sprang a modest surprise by selecting him in a 13-man squad for the First Test against Zimbabwe, which begins at Lord's on Thursday.

There are two other uncapped players. The first is James Kirtley, the 28-year-old Sussex seamer who has played seven one-day internationals and has found early summer conditions to his liking. He comes in for Andrew Caddick, who has a foot injury. The other newcomer is James Anderson, whose selection was both expected and merited after his stirring winter.

England have tried to balance the desire to win in the present with the need to try to develop a team who will win, against Australia, say, in the future. But they could have chosen Upper Slaughter Second XI and still be expected to beat Zimbabwe, who have lost seven consecutive Tests.

McGrath will provide cover for Andrew Flintoff, who has a compressed nerve in his arm. McGrath can probably consider himself fortunate on three grounds. First, others who might have been involved in discussions, Craig White and Paul Collingwood, are injured. Secondly, it is mildly optimistic to think of McGrath as a like-for-like replacement. He has indubitably improved as a medium-pacer, but has taken fewer than 50 wickets in a career that is in its ninth season.

Thirdly, the selectors have ignored the claims of those who attended the National Academy. Since Rod Marsh, the Academy director, is now a selector, this means one of two things. Either he thinks none of the graduates is quite ready (Kyle Hogg, Rikki Clarke, Kabir Ali) and was appreciated by his colleagues, or he thinks there are legitimate candidates and was ignored.

In picking McGrath, who has made two half-centuries and taken four wickets this season, the selectors have also deflected attention from their insistence on keeping faith with the 40-year-old Alec Stewart. Stewart may still be, just, the best wicketkeeper-batsman in England who has also appeared in seven Ashes losing sides. There comes a time to say: "Thanks Gaffer, we'll cherish the memories." That has been reached.

There is a feeling that the selectors cannot have looked forward to the Ashes 2005 and asked if Stewart, or McGrath, would form part of their team then. If they had, they would have answered themselves in the negative and moved on.

England found Anderson, an Academy scholar, by good fortune last winter when a plethora of injuries enforced his call-up to the one-day squad. The rest will one day soon be history.

McGrath is 27 now and has never truly trained on from his auspicious beginnings as a colt. To that initial hundred only another eight have been added. He has established himself as a solid county pro and was made captain of Yorkshire this season.

A first-class batting average below 30 and a bowling average to match speak of moderate achievement. In his favour – and not to be under-rated – is the fact that England have recently chosen several players with county records which were not exactly overwhelming. Michael Vaughan had a batting average of 27 in the season immediately preceding his elevation, while Marcus Trescothick had a career average somewhere in the twenties.

Maybe there is a feeling that McGrath has the right stuff. It may also be true that playing at Headingley is the professional cricketer's equivalent of performing on a cabbage patch, and thus a career batting average of 30 would be five or six runs more everywhere else. It may also help in playing on the less contrary surfaces to be found elsewhere in international cricket.

The other mildly contentious, though predictable, choice is that of Robert Key. John Crawley has been omitted from the side who beat Australia in the Fifth Test in Sydney in January. David Graveney, the chairman of selectors, said: "With regard to Robert Key's selection ahead of John Crawley, we feel that Robert is very much part of England's future, but I would stress that Crawley hasn't let England down and he has certainly not been removed from our future plans."

Crawley has averaged close to 50 since his recall last summer without threatening mastery. True, he has not let England down, but if he plays again it would speak volumes about those in their early and mid-to-late twenties. Having been identified, Key, at 24, should be given the long run of which Crawley was once deprived.

It is impossible to envisage Zimbabwe providing realistic Test opposition. Their recent record is poor, and that was when they had Andy Flower in the side. The only Test team they have beaten in the past five years are Bangladesh.

Still, the absence of Caddick leaves England short of bowling experience. Anderson and Stephen Harmison are still apprentices, and Matthew Hoggard is struggling. If Kirtley is chosen ahead of the left-arm spinner, Ashley Giles, the attack will have 23 caps.

There is another reason for questioning the selection of the admirable Kirtley, and it has to be mentioned. Doubts have been cast previously on his action. He has worked assiduously to rectify any possible fault. It is to be hoped that he has done so and is now a well-oiled machine. There is a world of difference between appearing in a Test at Lord's before dozens of well-trained television cameras and at Hove in front of dozens of sleepy deck chairs.

Ticket sales for the match have been sluggish, caused by a mixture of weak opposition and the fact that there remains an understandable resistance to watching Test cricket in late May. The extracurricular action might, however, raise the profile of the match.

The Stop The Tour campaign will be out in something like force. They are trying to negotiate with the MCC to be allowed to protest, peacefully, inside the ground. If that request is not met, Peter Tatchell and his supporters will assuredly try to invade the pitch to make their point about the regime of Robert Mugabe. On balance, Tatchell is more likely to make the front pages than McGrath.

Lord's squad

N Hussain (Essex) Age 35, caps 80
M P Vaughan (Yorkshire) 28, 28
M E Trescothick (Somerset) 27, 31
M A Butcher (Surrey) 30, 50
A J Stewart (Surrey, wkt) 40, 126
R W T Key (Kent) 24, 6
A McGrath (Yorkshire) 27, 0
A Flintoff (Lancashire) 25, 21
A F Giles (Warwickshire) 30, 19
M J Hoggard (Yorkshire) 26, 18
J M Anderson (Lancashire) 20, 0
R J Kirtley (Sussex) 28, 0
S J Harmison (Durham) 24, 5

Play starts 10.45am, Thursday. C4