New England's Call To Harmison

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The Independent Online

In keeping with a venerable tradition England yesterday named two debutants in their squad for the First Test against Zimbabwe. If all goes according to the usual plan, they should be drummed out of Test cricket within the year.

That might sound a tad cynical in this latest, genuinely buoyant new age but the first newcomers of the summer, Chris Schofield and Steve Harmison, should know that it is backed by abundant evidence. In the three years since David Graveney became chairman of selectors 17 players have been given a debut but only two will be on duty at The Oval. Seven of the others have played no more than two matches - and Graveney is a chairman who craves continuity.

The selectors have named 13 players for the match at Lord's beginning on Thursday, of whom Nick Knight and Ed Giddins, of Warwickshire, were, like Harmison, not given central contracts with the England and Wales Cricket Board. Presumably, their counties will have no qualms about releasing them. All three will have prompted much discussion when the selectors - Graveney, Nasser Hussain, the captain, Duncan Fletcher, the coach, and Geoff Miller - met in Chelmsford on Friday night.

As ever, the call-up of Schofield and Harmison, both 21, of Lancashire and Durham respectively, is accompanied by burgeoning optimism that this time a couple of diamonds have been unearthed. Schofield, who had already been surprisingly awarded one of the ECB's 12 contracts, is in not only because he is a wrist spinner in an era when they have become fashionable but because it is believed he is a precociously gifted one. The master of them all, Shane Warne himself, when asked about Schofield, said it all: "He's got all the toys."

Schofield is nicely cocky with a welcome line in self-belief ("as I'm the only spinner I must have a good chance of playing"). Harmison is a different sort of cove altogether. He is in, Graveney said, because of his speed, but there have been rumours in the past about his uncertainty about playing at the top level, not a sound testimonial for one seeking to instil fear into the batsman's heart. Graveney, however, dismissed the notion: "I have no qualms about his temperament," he said. "Fast bowlers emerge quickly. Look at Brett Lee last winter in Australia. You have to pick them when they're hot."

Neither Schofield nor Harmison are certain to play, though it is surely not the intention to keep them hanging round for long. The choice will depend on pitch conditions at Lord's and Harmison is probably in direct competition with Giddins, whose appearance is welcome if only because he adds to the gaiety of nations.

Giddins is a card, but he has shown he is utterly serious about playing big cricket. He achieved overnight notoriety by being banned from the game for taking cocaine (he was slipped a Micky Finn at a party the night before the match, he claimed, and whether that was soit is jolly in these times that he can admit to being at a party the night before a match). Sacked by Sussex, he served his time, moved to Warwickshire, and took enough wickets to get noticed.

But after playing at The Oval last summer he was immediately ditched and was taken on neither of the winter tours. Attempting to clear up that mystery, Graveney said he had been dispappointed with Giddins' fitness then. He told him to do something about it.

While one assumption is that going on the A tour might have been the best bet to monitor his fitness, Giddins took the message on board. He spent £7,000 of his own cash to pay two six-week visits to Lilleshall Human Peformance Centre. The results, both for body and mind, have been impressive.

Before Lilleshall, Giddins spent most of October on a jaunt up the River Amazon. He is posssibly the first England cricketer (he was accompanied by the Surrey player, Nadeem Shahid) to have ventured that way, unless Freddie Brown, born in Peru, made it as a youngster.

He said he made the trek to be at one with the world, to find what it was like to live in the wild. They took a boat up the river, slept in hammocks, ate vegetables, fell in with the locals, ate piranha, learned to outrun an anaconda. "There were some hairy moments. Having to check your shoes every morning for tarantulas was one. The hammocks at Lilleshall aren't quite as comfortable."

Giddins has an independence of spirit which clearly appeals to Hussain. Should he ever go on a senior England tour, heaven knows how he will put up with the endless round of hotel to airport to ground. Neither hammocks nor tarantulas are often in sight.

It is possible but unlikely that both Harmison and Giddins will make the final XI on Thursday morning as supporting acts toAndrew Caddick and Darren Gough. While Harmison has the extra yard of pace (and some crucial bounce) it is Giddins who has the swing. He is also in the form of his life. It is to be hoped he can transfer that to the international arena. The game needs a spot of genuine individuality.

Knight, too, has worked hard at his game, trying to eradicate perceived technical deficiencies, especially outside the off stump. His pick-up is more uniform, he is stiller at the crease, he is, simply, trying to play straighter. He has beaten off Graham Thorpe for the sixth batting place, although David Sales, of Northamptonshire, was discussed and must be close now to beingoffered a chance.

Knight, who was selected because of his early season form, will definitely bat at six. Although he opens for his county it was at number six that he made his only Test hundred, against Pakistan in 1996. The opening will be done by Michael Atherton and Mark Ramprakash.

England will start as big favourites against a side whom the gods appear to hold in grave disfavour at present. But it will be in their minds - because we will be reminding them - that Zimbabwe are also terriers and that England's own record at Lord's is dire. Their form at a ground which should inspire them to great deeds makes their efforts elsewhere look like those of world-beaters. They have won only three of the past 15 Tests there over 11 years.

Players often complain that the crowd at Lord's is not passionate enough, and they might have point, but another way of looking it is that at Lord's they watch the cricket. It should not be a problem this tme. The signs are that there will not be a crowd to cheer or not. This would be a shame.

The ECB have wriggled out of trying to give Test matches to Zimbabwe in England. Without quite saying so, they have done this because they feared not selling many tickets. But if this now comes true, it will not be Zimbabwe's fault, it will be England's because they have lost so often.

They have a golden opportunity now, with a line-up which will contain only five of those who beat South Africa in the final Test at Centurion Park in February, to start ascending the path to glory once more. It would be wonderful if Schofield and Harmison were to take them there.

Form Guide: How England's Squad Have Fared This Season

Nasser Hussain (Essex, Captain) Age: 32 Caps: 47

Batting: First Class: Inns 2, Not Outs 0, Runs 28, Ave 14.00. National League: 2-0-115-57.50. B & H Cup: 3-0-72-24.00

Michael Atherton (Lancashire) Age: 32 Caps: 95 Batting: Fc: 6-0-74-12.33. Nl: 1-0-46-46.00. B & H:4-1-131-43.66

Mark Ramprakash (Middlesex) Age: 30 Caps: 38 Batting: Fc: 4-0-151-37.75. Nl:3-0-56-18.66. B &H: 1-0-6-6 Bowling: Fc: 9 Overs, 1 Maiden, 22 Runs, 0 Wickets

Graeme Hick (Worcestershire) Age: 33 Caps: 53 Batting: Fc: 3-1-195-97.5. Nl: 2-0-23-11.5. B & H: 2-1-55-55.0 Bowling: Fc: 5-0-28-0

Alec Stewart (Surrey) Age: 37 Caps: 95 Batting: Fc: 2-0-52-26.00. Nl: 1-0-41-41.00. B & H: 2-1-17-17.00

Nick Knight (Warwickshire) Age: 30 Caps: 12 Batting: Fc: 3-0-273-91.00. Nl: 2-1-114-114.00. B & H: 2-0-47-23.50

Andrew Flintoff (Lancashire) Age: 22 Caps: 6 Batting: Fc: 5-1-304-76.00. Nl: 1-0-7-7.00. B & H: 5-1-143-35.75 Bowling: Fc: 47-18-60-3-20.00; Nl: 9-1-26-1-26.00. B & H: 50-7-152-6-25.33

Chris Schofield (Lancashire) Age: 21 Caps: 0 Batting: Fc: 5-0-204-40.8. Nl: Has Not Played. B & H:1-0-16.16.00. Bowling: Fc: 83-20-193-10-19.3. B & H: 10-1-33-1-33.00

Craig White (Yorkshire) Age: 30 Caps: 8 Batting: Fc: 2-0-28-14.00. Nl: 2-0-15-7.50. B & H: 5-1-138-34.50 Bowling: Fc: 35-10-79-9-9.9. Nl: 17.2-1-44-3-14.66. B & H: 35-7-140-7-20.00

Andrew Caddick (Somerset) Age: 31 Caps: 36 Batting: Fc: 2-0-19-9.50. Nl: 1-0-16-16.00. B & H: 2-1-4-4.00 Bowling: Fc: 64-14-197-15-13.13. Nl: 8-2-1-32-0-0.00. B & H: 19-3-62-1-62.00

Darren Gough (Yorkshire) Age: 29 Caps: 36 Batting: Fc: 1-2-23-23.00. Nl: 2-2-30-15.00. B & H: 1-1-0* Bowling: Fc: 45.3-11-125-7-17.85. Nl: 17-4-52-2-26.00. B & H: 35-8-82-8-10.25

Ed Giddins (Warwickshire) Age: 28 Caps: 1 Batting: Fc: Hnb. Nl: Hnb. B & H: 1-1-0* Bowling: Fc: 62-23-169-6-28.16. Nl: 13-1-51-1. B & H: 18-2-55-5-11.00

Steve Harmison (Durham) Age: 21 Caps: 0 Batting: Fc: 4-0-19-4.75. Nl: 1-1-1*. B & H: 3-1-9-4.50 Bowling: Fc: 65-13-163-7-23.28. Nl: 17.5-0-120-2-60.00. B & H: 34-2-161-7-23.00

First Test: 18 May, Lord's.

Second Test: 1 June, Trent Bridge