No answers and one big question

For all their endeavour, England flew home empty-handed - and still thinking about Stewart
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The Independent Online

England are obviously now a competitive side of boundless spirit and no little endeavour. By common consent, their captain stands comparison with any of his predecessors and knocks most of them into a cocked hat.

Yet when Nasser Hussain and his players finally flew home from their winter expeditions last week they had no need to fork out an excess baggage payment for a trophy cabinet. The outcome of their four series on tour in India and New Zealand over the past four months was two defeats and two draws, all of the honourable variety. England lost and drew both a Test and a one-day series. For a team with so muchdetermination and goodwill going for them they do not win much. They have now gone four Test series without victory.

Zimbabwe have been their only scalps in the shorter game since the summer of 2000, which in effect means they have now failed to varying degrees against Pakistan (twice), Sri Lanka, Australia, India, New Zealand, and South Africa if you count the ICC Knockout 18 months ago.

On this evidence, it makes it difficult to be confident about regaining the Ashes and winning the World Cup next winter. Actually, it is impossible. Any wishes cast in those directions amount to pie in the sky.

For now it is advisable not to contemplate what might happen to England in those competitions. The tasks at immediate hand for this summer, at home against Sri Lanka and India, will be onerous enough.

There are, as Hussain readily concedes, vast strides to take before England remotely compare to the finished article. The first steps towards securing a much-needed triumph or two will be taken this week when the list of centrally contracted players is announced. Lucky them.

Surprises will be in short supply. As the coach, Duncan Fletcher, observed, they know who they want to work with. It is perhaps symptomatic of the type of ills which have constantly bedevilled English cricket that heated discussion is still taking place in comparing the merits and demerits of one player who will be 39 tomorrow and another who will be 22 a week later.

Alec Stewart is old enough to be James Foster's father. The Stewart Question has been integral to English cricket for more than a decade. It has gone through several phases which form a neat circle, to wit: Should he play? Should he open the batting? Should he keep wicket? Should he open the batting and keep wicket? Should he keep wicket and bat down the order? Should he play?

Stewart's decision to make himself unavailable for the winter – though he belatedly changed his mind for the post-Christmas segment – has thrown into doubt his future. Had he gone to India and postponed an operation on his elbows he would probably still hold his position.

Foster's advent has now thrown up a further set of questions for the selectors. The most significant one is: Did we get it right when we plucked Foster from obscurity to the team's wicketkeeper-batsman well into the future? Not all the signs show that they should answer themselves in the affirmative.

Foster has many admirable qualities, not least handling adversity well. When he has played badly he has been honest enough to admit it and do something about it. But the overall impression that emerged from a winter of high-pressure international cricket was that he is not yet a good enough keeper at any form of the game and is not a flexible enough batsman in the one-day form. This would seem to present a case for Stewart's return.

Then comes another leading question. If Stewart, who is still the better combined player, is recalled, will he make the difference between England winning and not winning the World Cup? We should all know the answer to that, and if not, a glance in the direction of Australia and Sri Lanka should tell you all you need to know.

Therefore, England would be better jettisoning Stewart, having given him abundant gratitude for long and distinguished service. In truth, they should barely consider him now. This would still leave the Foster question. He has a worrying technique as a keeper, he is weak to his left and the positioning of his gloves for the ball above waist height makes him look vulnerable.

If England are serious about him they should stop treating this crucial position as a poor relation and hire some high-class coaching help. If that means flying the great Alan Knott back from his home in Cyprus – and Knott knows a thing or two about keeping wicket for England at the age of 21 – then so be it. It might be worth docking the county subsidy for.

But is Foster the right man? Mark Wallace, the Glamorgan wicketkeeper, is reported to have been highly impressive for England's National Academy in the winter. Since the man he was impressing was Rodney Marsh, who knows a bit about being a wicketkeeper-batsman, he is worth closer examination.

Then there is Chris Read, who was thought to be the coming young man when he played two Test matches against New Zealand three years ago and still looks to have the softest hands of all. Enough of Stewart then, but the position is vital.

The other vital position is the all-rounder. England have come back with two in Andrew Flintoff and Craig White. Flintoff's position in both one-day and Test sides is now established. It is a tribute not only to his flair but his dedication. All he now has to do is bowl well in the same match as he bats well. He will.

There are problems elsewhere, in both bowling and batting. For all Matthew Hoggard's dogged perseverance, successors to Darren Gough and Andrew Caddick are not in sight. The batsmen are not making enough runs. They have to decide on the best opening partnership (Marcus Trescothick and Michael Vaughan should be given a run) and whether to draw a line under the unfulfilled international career of the richly gifted Mark Ramprakash.

Ian Bell will be 20 on Thursday. The birthday may be marked by official recognition that he is the future. He would still have it all to do. Like Hussain's England.

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