Prior loses throne in England's musical chairs

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The Independent Online

In the game of musical chairs that doubles as the selection of the England wicketkeeper, an Australian called Tim Ambrose yesterday found himself in the hot seat. Recent evidence suggests that he will be keeping it warm only for somebody else and if there is a chap named Buggins out there who reckons he can keep wicket he should certainly keep the gloves handy.

Ambrose has been designated for the role in the Test series in New Zealand which begins in March. He will replace Matt Prior who has been omitted from the second touring squad of the winter following a wretched display in the third Test in Sri Lanka last month when he spurned three catches. Prior has also been left out of the one-day party, that will play five matches against the Kiwis next month. Phil Mustard will be the one-day 'keeper and will go as cover in the Test party.

There was one other change in the squad that went to Sri Lanka, with Ravi Bopara being dropped and Andrew Strauss being recalled as widely predicted a middle order batsman omitted for an opener. This will require more musical chairs in the batting order. With Strauss likely to immediately reclaim an opener's berth, according to the chairman of selectors, David Graveney, the captain, Michael Vaughan, will drop to three, meaning Ian Bell will have to move yet again.

Positional placement may not be all the players have to concern themselves with. Graveney issued the team with his harshest warning since he took over as chairman of selectors 11 years ago. Effectively he told them to win in New Zealand or else.

"We need to up our level of performance," Graveney said. "New Zealand aren't just going to collapse in front of us whether their fast bowler Shane Bond is available or not. It's a home series for them and they haven't had a good time of it lately.

"The message is clear to all senior players. This is the time to deliver. In Sri Lanka we didn't convert 50s and 60s into hundreds, we did not have that ruthlessness that we need, we didn't bowl people out and we also missed too many chances in comparison to the opposition. Don't underestimate what I'm saying."

They were timely and pertinent words. Graveney will be interviewed for his own job on Monday, renamed as National Selector in line with the recommendations of the Schofield Review and was laying down a marker to the men who would be king.

If Prior can consider himself slightly unfortunate, Ambrose should be immediately apprehensive about his chances of holding on to the position (holding on to catches would be a prerequisite). Should he play as planned he will be the eighth wicketkeeper used by England in internationals since December 2006 and the fourth in Tests following Geraint Jones, Chris Read and Prior.

Graveney said that James Foster of Essex was also considered. But the selectors are casting around hoping to find a wicketkeeper of international quality as well as a world-class batsman when they know the field is much of a muchness.

Nothing suggests that Ambrose will be the long-term answer and indeed Graveney clouded the issue slightly by insisting that he was sure Prior would be back. Maybe he was sweetening the pill as he had been unable to contact Prior before announcing the squad. Ambrose, whose mother was born in England, came here from New South Wales where he was born, as a 17-year-old and immediately landed a contract with Sussex.

He moved on to Warwickshire when Prior, ironically, eventually claimed the Sussex wicketkeeper's role permanently. Ambrose said he had no qualms whatever about being born Australian and playing for England. Ambrose had an average of 43 in first-class matches last season but the best batting average among 'keepers was achieved by the man judged universally as the best gloveman, Chris Read who scored more than 1,000 runs at above 50. Graveney conceded that they had taken into account Read's participation in the breakaway Indian Cricket League in November which was frowned upon by the England and Wales Cricket Board.

If it is rare for the selectors to take two uncapped wicketkeepers in Ambrose and Mustard on tour, it is unprecedented for them to take one born in Newcastle, Australia, and the other in Sunderland, north of England.

Graveney said: "It has been a much discussed area since Alec Stewart retired. This was a difficult decision but we felt as well as Matt Prior has batted there are areas of his wicketkeeping he does need to work at.

"We have to improve our ratio of taking chances. The wicketkeeping position since Alec finished has been under the microscope more than any other and the player involved does feel the pressure." More chairs may be required yet.

England Lions squad to tour India (24 January-23 February): M H Yardy (Sussex, capt), K Ali (Worcs), M A Carberry (Hants), S M Davies (Worcs), J L Denly (Kent), J C Hildreth (Somerset), E C Joyce (Middx), G Onions (Durham), M S Panesar (Northants), L E Plunkett (Durham), A U Rashid (Yorks), A Richardson (Middx), I J LTrott (Warks).

Ambrose ready to grab his Test chance

Tim Ambrose is confident that he can solve England's troublesome wicketkeeper position

"I'm a wicketkeeper-batsman as everyone knows and it's my job now to step up and try to fill that spot as well as I can," the 25-year-old told Sky Sports News.

"There's competition for all places and I think that's healthy. It's always good to have someone behind pushing you on."

Ambrose was part of the England Lions touring party to India last year and feels his performances there proved he was ready for a bigger stage.

"I think it was confirmation more than anything else that I am ready to take on the challenge at the next level," he said. "It was a valuable experience."

England in New Zealand: Itinerary

Tour matches: 1 Feb 2008 (11pm): Canterbury (Christchurch). 2 Feb (11pm): Canterbury (Christchurch).

Twenty20 series v NZ: 5 Feb (6am): Auckland; 7 Feb (6am): Christchurch. ODI series v NZ: 9 Feb (1am): Wellington; 12 Feb (1am): Hamilton; 15 Feb (1am): Auckland; 19 Feb (10pm): Napier; 23 Feb (1am): Christchurch.

Tour matches: 24 Feb (11pm): Otago (Dunedin); 27 Feb (11pm): Otago (Dunedin).

Test series v NZ: 4 Mar (9.30pm): FIRST TEST (Hamilton); 12 Mar (9.30pm): SECOND TEST (Wellington); 21 Feb (9.30pm): THIRD TEST (Napier). All times GMT.