New season, new order, new opening

Well, the central contracts have been signed. The 12 who were offered them as the first recipients of such documents in the English game now come under the banner of the England and Wales Cricket Board.

If it seemed a long process before it all became official it was important to get it precisely right. There was not a bitter dispute about money and nor were the players a kind of Dirty Dozen as has been partially portrayed. We accepted the pay offer almost immediately, we were merely anxious to make sure it was properly drawn up now to avoid future difficulties.

The most important point is that the players welcome this development as the way forward. Team England has been talked about before but this is the first concrete manifestation of that ethos.

We really can be a team now. To that end, the first squad assembly last week in Manchester was more than a bonding session or a fitness test. It gave players who had never met a chance to get to know each other.

For instance, I didn't know Chris Schofield, the 21-year-old legspinner who has been included in the 12. It is not beyond the bounds of all possibility that both of us might be in the same England team sometime this summer.

Before, he would have walked into the dressing-room as an unknown colleague. The idea of central contracts can only boost team spirit. The principle has always been the correct one, even if the detail was slightly awry. We will regroup in Taunton the week before the First Test next month.

Naturally, I was almost as surprised as I was delighted to be part of this first tranche of players. I had given it little thought over the winter. It had been dreadfully disappointing initially to be omitted from the winter touring squad but life has to go on. I got over that in a week, started organising the benefit year.

At Christmas when I responded to an injury emergency, flying out to South Africa as batting cover, it was gratifying to know I was still in selectorial thoughts. But getting back now was a bit of a turn-up.

The long (enforced) rest might have done me good. It has witnessed a fundamental change in my batting future. From hereon I will openthe batting for Middlesex. Whether I do that or any other job for England is in the hands of the selectors, but I am available for the post ifrequired.

Before breaking into senior cricket I had always opened. I did the job with Michael Atherton in young England teams (and adequately enough if I recall). It was perhaps only because I started in the county first team so young that I did not continue in the role.

I began at number six as a 17-year-old with Middlesex and have gradually crept up the order since. For three or four years I have been at three. Now, Justin Langer will swap places with me.

I did not take this decision lightly. I thought long and hard to myself. I asked the advice of Mike Gatting, who said I should do what made me happy with my cricket and, when I was in Barbados on a late winter break, of the splendid former West Indies and Middlesex opener, Desmond Haynes. He said there was no great mystery to the job. Except that the big difference is that every time you go out to bat the opposition has a new cherry in their hands.

I have frequently faced the new ball of course at three and at number six for England the second new ball has often come along. I am not deceiving myself it will be elementary. But it is a huge opportunity. Getting in can be demanding, but get in and you have the opportunity to bat for a long time, to construct an innings. It would be welcome to be reunited with Atherton at the top of the order after all these years.

It would also have been welcome to have slightly more cricket than there is before the First Test. It looks as though there will be a chance for only one four-day match. Time was when you went in with three or four matches under your belt and felt under-rehearsed. The Benson and Hedges group matches beginning next Saturday have assumed a fresh significance. Nothing in batting can replace time in the middle. Why, I'm even looking forward to Middlesex's three practice matches this week.

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