Reshaped England enjoy slight edge

To recap on events before we were so rudely interrupted: England have drawn level in the Test rubber against West Indies after a nerve-racking victory in one of the greatest matches ever seen at Lord's, the most famous ground in the world.

To recap on events before we were so rudely interrupted: England have drawn level in the Test rubber against West Indies after a nerve-racking victory in one of the greatest matches ever seen at Lord's, the most famous ground in the world.

After being on the wrong end of the conditions in the opening match, not to mention also being on the wrong end of some stupendous fast bowling, they recovered against all the odds. When it looked as though they were out of the Second Test, their bowlers produced a sequence of memorable spells and the tourists were all out for 54.

Somehow, England hung on to secure the 188 runs they needed for victory on Saturday evening, the second third-day finish in two matches. Only two wickets remained when the recalled Dominic Cork struck the winning runs through cover amid scenes of high tension and palpitating drama. But Cork was only one of 11 heroes. Now, play on.

The outcome of the Third Test at Old Trafford, which starts on Thursday after what has seemed an interminable wait caused by the one-day triangular tournament, may not be crucial to the destiny of the Wisden Trophy considering the inherent weaknesses of both teams. Either are capable of winning or losing. Neither have stumbled on the secret to getting on a roll and staying on it. England may be in a better position to come back from a defeat than the tourists, not least because they are accustomed to it. On the other hand, the drawback to that theory is that England have not actually beaten West Indies in a series for 31 years.

These two sides appear as well matched as they demonstrated for most of the Nineties. England have changed a winning side. Two of the men who featured in the epic contest at Lord's have been jettisoned, probably fairly. Mark Ramprakash and Nick Knight simply failed to make enough runs. True, they have been batting on poor pitches and no England player has made 50 in the series so far, but somebody had to pay.

In their place come Marcus Trescothick, who will open, the returning Nasser Hussain, who has been desperately short of runs all summer (and by now form as well), and possibly Graham Thorpe. It is conceivable England will play all three and go in with seven batsmen. The sight of Thorpe or Graeme Hick going in at No 7 in a Test will be decidedly odd, but England are desperate for runs and will try anything to get them, short of selling Lord's.

Seven is traditionally one too many batsmen, though as ever it is Alec Stewart - making his 100th Test appearance along with Michael Atherton - who disturbs nature's balance. If he was a wicketkeeping No 7, as England's selectors are at pains to point out, nobody would comment. The great Alan Knott did that job for years. Stewart's proficiency changes things a little, but put him at seven, then move him up two places and it changes nothing at all.

There could still be a place for Craig White, who has been retained ahead of Andrew Flintoff after replacing the injured Lancastrian at Lord's. The side could then be completed by the three seamers, Andrew Caddick, Darren Gough and Cork, though since Lancashire have often played with three spinners this season it would be perverse, not to say risky, if England did not include Robert Croft, especially after making so much of his off-spin away from the array of West Indies' left-handers.

Flintoff will obviously return to the side in the future. He is 22 and he is the most charismatic cricketer to have emerged in this country for years. But you could see the selectorial conundrum. Flintoff had been given a run of matches and had never made so much as a half-century. Certainly, players have to be allowed to fail, and to grow into the international game, but they must never be permitted to take their place for granted. Test cricket is not about providing jobs for the boys. It was either good timing or bad timing, depending on your viewpoint, that the man known as Freddie should score such a spectacular century at The Oval last week, four days after England omitted him. (The innings itself, of course, was all good timing.) It seemed to show that the selectors were wrong, but equally they have a series to win and up to now Flintoff has not performed well in it.

If West Indies had taken the final two wickets at Lord's and gone 2-0 up they would be overwhelming favourites. They did not, and a huge task now lies ahead for them. Their key players are the usual trio: Courtney Walsh, Curtly Ambrose and Brian Lara. Walsh and Ambrose have had their feet up - presumably when they have not been in warm water and Radox - for a month, and it is a sure thing that they will not be ring-rusty come Thursday. Just in case, Walsh had a little trot-out in the exhibition match at The Oval yesterday.

Some bowlers, like Andrew Caddick, for instance, seem to prosper on bowling day in, day out. Walsh and Ambrose can turn it on like a tap, and there is something of the drip, drip of water torture in the way they set about getting their man. If they do damage with the new ball, make no mistake, England could still be in deep trouble. They will need their own formidable pairing of Caddick and Gough to get them out of it.

Lara has threatened to break into magnificent form. He has not yet done so, though the evidence of the past suggests that he has an influential role to play. Still, the word "genius" inevitably attached to him always comes accompanied with the adjective "troubled".

Stories from the camp suggest that all is not well with him. It seems silly after all this time and considering the innings he has played, but there is still a school of thought that West Indies would prosper more without him. Not that he will be dropped, and not that anybody will be wheeling out that theory when he is stroking the ball effortlessly around Old Trafford next week.

England have probably selected the squad appropriate for the occasion, but they are no nearer continuity than ever. If Thorpe and Trescothick are both in Thursday's team, England will have used 18 players already this summer in five Tests - and that is with an unchanged team for the first two matches of the summer, and also not counting players such as Steve Harmison and Mark Ealham, who have made squads but not teams.

Trescothick, the 24-year-old who will make his Test debut, obviously does not like to move his feet too much, and there is no chance that rambling is his hobby. Too much guff can be talked about this. He had better watch it outside the off stump, but he is much more than merely a hunch.

It is an absorbing contest in which England now have the edge, but it could go either way. The last two series between the sides in this country have finished at 2-2, and if they can devise a way of ensuring a match goes beyond Saturday that is hardly beyond possibility this time.

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