England will start the creation this week of a new side. Barely since the dawn of international cricket can the team sheet have contained so many blanks, and back in 1877 it was partly a case of who could spare the time.
The announcement on Thursday of the one-day squad for this summer's matches, certain to contain a clutch of players in the first flush, represents a severe examination of the craft of selection. Get this wrong - and we may not know for a year or so - and the suspicion will grow that they really could do the job by blindfolding the chairman, giving him a pin and a copy of the Playfair Cricket Annual, and hoping he doesn't alight on Kim Barnett in the "Gloucestershire departed players" section.
There will be a new captain, Michael Vaughan, and at least six changes to the squad who failed in the World Cup earlier this year. Fresh faces should also bring a fresh philosophy. This time, England have to sound, play and act throughout as though they truly mean it. The design of this team ought to provide at least a template for the 2007 World Cup.
England have never managed to dispel the feeling that they think one-day cricket is a distraction, an inconvenience, or plain daft. But winning the World Cup would do more for the game in this country than a thousand initiatives from the England and Wales Cricket Board, and they know it. Whisper it, but to a certain generation it might mean more than reclaiming the Ashes.
There are two one-day international tournaments this summer: the three-match NatWest Challenge against Pakistan, and the NatWest Series, the now customary and attractive triangular tournament, this time involving South Africa and Zimbabwe. If the Challenge seems a pretty insignificant affair, it has been included in the calendar to give England's players more experience.
It is to be hoped that the public are not being offered too much of a good thing. The notion of a quadrangular tournament to incorporate the extra team was rejected. It would not only have been unwieldy, it would also have lessened the chances of England qualifying for the final.
The party of players that is announced on Thursday will have been picked with at least half an eye on the 2007 World Cup in the West Indies. That is not to say that it will bear much resemblance to the bunch who make it to the Caribbean, just that the thought is there.
It will be a fraught process, containing a large element of punditry. Just possibly, some players will be picked who have never performed well in front of a selector on a given day. That is the nature of the game. David Graveney, the chairman of selectors, could give few hints because the panel have not yet met, and will probably not do so until Tuesday. "It will be a fascinating discussion, with plenty of ideas on the table," he said. "You can be pretty certain we will be going young."
This means the new selector, Rodney Marsh, must have a large bearing. As director of the National Academy he has more experience of the young talent. If Academy graduates are not included in virtual droves, everybody concerned with English cricket has been wasting their time. It will not happen.
The squad might also demonstrate for the first time the growing influence and importance to England of cricketers with an Asian background. And there will be no place for Alec Stewart, who while falling short of formally retiring from one-day cricket, does not expect to be picked. A new era indeed.
The new players will be largely batsmen to support the Vaughan-Marcus Trescothick duet at the top of the order. Vaughan has already stated that he will bat in the top three. It seems illogical for him to bat anywhere else but opening with Trescothick. The advantages of breaking up their Test partnership are outweighed by continuity and the knowledge of each other's games.
The need for multi-skilled cricketers should not be followed slavishly. But it may, for instance, tell against somebody like Robert Key, who is in the Test team, has a perfectly adequate domestic one-day batting record, but neither bowls nor compares favour-ably with a gazelle in the field. A player who does is Vikram Solanki. To be included, he must give the lie to the assertion that Graveney and his panel never go back to those they have previously tried and discarded. But Solanki was unreasonably jettisoned after his brief foray into the international arena three years ago.
His method (he bats inside-out, for want of a better description) can make him vulnerable, but he has flair and plays the unlikely shot. Bilal Shafayat, too, may be included. He is only 18, but that means he will be 22 by the time of the World Cup. If his self-belief comes close to being matched by his talent, he will go far. He may also turn into a one-day bowler.
The balance of the squad is likely to be five batsmen, four seamers, four all-rounders, one spinner and a wicketkeeper. Another of the batsmen could well be Will Jefferson, whose immense height, 6ft 10in, and reach has impressed as well as his ability. Jim Troughton, of Warwickshire, is a clean striker of the ball who has avoided second-season syndrome.
The absence through injury of Paul Collingwood is a blow. It may increase the burden on Andrew Flintoff, who has to perform to a high level, if he is fit. This must be Flintoff's time. Other all-rounders may be Anthony McGrath, a week ago a surprising selection and now seemingly a shoo-in, and Kabir Ali, a swing bowler who can bat. In the case of McGrath, it must be asked whether his robust frame will retain its flexibility: he is a touch podgy round the middle and will be 31 in 2007.
The selectors think Stephen Harmison can give them something extra to take important wickets, ie speed. So he can, but they have to watch overuse. James Anderson, Matthew Hoggard and Richard Johnson of Somerset will also be in the reckoning.
Though you wouldn't know it from the faith continually demonstrated in Stewart, there is a plethora of wicketkeeping talent. Chris Read deserves the first go.Reuse content