One doubt: do Thorpe's eyes still have it?

npower Test Series: England luxuriate in settled squad but the fear is that their pivotal batsman is on borrowed time
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The Independent Online

The squad for the first Test match of the season will be announced today. Time was that this was a spine-tingling affair, if only because it was impossible to tell what the damn-fool selectors were about to do next.

The squad for the first Test match of the season will be announced today. Time was that this was a spine-tingling affair, if only because it was impossible to tell what the damn-fool selectors were about to do next.

That urgent sense of anticipation has been eroded. Partly this is caused by the opposition at Lord's on Thursday week - Bangladesh. It is difficult to look forward to a match whose result is a foregone conclusion and whose only real doubt surrounds whether it will finish on the second, third or, at a push, fourth day.

In addition, selectors these days practise continuity. It does not mean that they are always right, but at least they back their beliefs. Thus, the announcement that David Graveney makes this morning on Radio Five Live will run to a preordained script. Or, as they are wont to say in pulp thrillers, will it?

Selectorial form, not to say common sense, dictates that 11 of the 13 likely to form the squad will be the team who finished the thrilling series against South Africa in February. They would also dearly wish the XI who take the field at Lord's on 26 May to take it against Australia on 21 July.

However, this does not mean that the selectors have not felt the pressure. They have been given copious amounts of advice about the batting order and whether Robert Key should bat at three in front of Ian Bell. If they drop Key now, it will be interpreted as a permanent loss of faith. If they pick him, they will be saying virtually that he is the man for Australia.

Key should earn the vote. It is true that Bell has an indefinable presence at the crease which somehow makes it clear that he will make runs at the highest level. But Key raises his game against top bowling. He never looks discomfited.

Kevin Pietersen, of course, has complicated the issue (as has Andrew Flintoff's heel operation, which may preclude him from bowling). Pietersen's rediscovery of form at Canterbury, with his first century for Hampshire, seems to complicate it further. But it will be impossible for Pietersen to bat at three, and although he is the most excit-ing batsmen in the country bar Flintoff, and has a brash, outgoing personality of the type the game probably needs, he will have to wait. One-day cricket, in which he so flamboyantly made his name, is simply not Test cricket.

Pietersen's natural position may be at five - if it is possible to envisage a team with him adjacent to Flintoff - and that focuses attention on the man currently holding the position. Graham Thorpe is seen as central to England's main objective of the summer. There is a suspicion, no more, that he might be beginning to slip down the other side of the mountain.

One indifferent series, as he had in South Africa, does not finish an auspicious career, but you cannot afford many of them at the age of 35. There isn't time. Thorpe does not appear to be moving as freely as he might - his back again went into spasm the other day. It is easy to spot him these days in the field, where he is the senior man and looks it. He is beginning to be bowled and to be leg-before marginally more than he used to be. Margins at this level count.

England had better hope that he can see through the season. His experience is seen as crucial, not least because his record against Australia is so persuasive. He averages 45 against them as opposed to his Test career average of 43, and that cannot be said of many. It is slightly artificial, though, since the last of his three hundreds against them was eight years ago and he has played in only two of England's last 15 Test matches against them.

The most heartening aspect of the season - as opposed to the disheartening returns of almost all the leading batsmen - has been the form of Stephen Harmison for Durham. He has improved with every match, and while knocking over Lancashire is not quite in the same category as dismantling Australia, it will have done wonders for his self-belief.

Matthew Hoggard and Simon Jones will fill the other seam-bowling spots, if Jones's back responds to treatment. But other names will have been seriously discussed. The next cab off the rank, as they say in selectorial circles, is the worthy Gloucestershire swing bowler Jonathan Lewis, and he almost made his debut against South Africa in Pretoria.

But if the selectors want somebody who may cause discomfort to the Australians their thoughts will have turned east from Lewis. Chris Tremlett, of Hampshire, is in the development squad of 25. His height enables him to extract bounce and that is an inestimable weapon at all levels of cricket. The batsmen's options are immediately limited.

The limiting of batsmen's options will also be on the agenda at the ICC Cricket Committee in Dubai tomorrow. They will discuss whether carbon-graphite bat covers should be allowed, but a more worrying development has been the number of bats which have been found to be wider than the 4.25in permitted. It is a batsman's game, as the three bowlers on the committee will grumpily observe, but that is ridiculous.

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