Spin vision an illusion for England

Fifth Test: Long-term plans should not distract attention from the here and now for the heroes of Headingley
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There is a Test series to be won. There are a multitude of demanding winter tours to consider. There are, beyond that, the Ashes to ponder. All these matters will have exercised the minds of England's selectors in the past week, all could yet return to haunt them.

There is a Test series to be won. There are a multitude of demanding winter tours to consider. There are, beyond that, the Ashes to ponder. All these matters will have exercised the minds of England's selectors in the past week, all could yet return to haunt them.

The first task, the little matter of beating West Indies for the first time in 31 years, must be their priority. Fail in the Fifth Test at The Oval, which begins on Thursday, and the perceived improvement will have followed the usual pattern: one step forward, two steps back as the warm-up for that familiar long walk to oblivion.

Yet they know, too, that West Indies, in a state of flux and growing disarray, are the least of the hurdles. Pakistan and Sri Lanka in the winter, Australia next summer and, before all that, a potentially irritating little excursion to Kenya in the autumn, will provide sterner examinations of their skills and temperament. A win of the most handsome proportions this week (or next, if the match manages to stagger on until Sunday) will again heighten expectations but should not alter the bald truth that England are likely to lose thereafter.

This may go against the grain of the goodwill engender-ed by the side's 2-1 lead going into the final Test - a position which none of the current side have ever experienced - but nobody should be fooled. England may, or may not, put Jimmy Adams' side to flight, but it would be as well to remember that they could easily have gone 2-0 down in this rubber.

For all the breathless excite-ment naturally created by matches ending in two or three days, it is difficult to avoid concluding we have been witness-ing a contest not to discover who is the best but who is the least bad. If that is a churlish view it also serves as a rem-inder of how far into the darkness England had fallen. West Indies have stumbled around messily in the adjacent murk.

It was confirmed yesterday that the squad for The Oval will be announced today, and that the touring parties for Tests and one-dayers will be named tomorrow, dangerously deflect-ing attention from the business in hand (the line-up for the Ashes will have to wait). Discussions have probably been fraught on all counts. Some gentle discourse on the batting has been submerged by debate about spin bowling, the purvey-ing of it and the playing of it.

As David Graveney, the chairman of selectors, said: "There is not a host of spin bowlers in the country at the moment, but a real concern for me for some time has been the way we play spin. We have not done that very successfully of late, and it will clearly be important to our welfare in the winter. It is something that in general we need to address, because there are so few spinners we don't get to face it."

The first of the spinning yarns of the past days concern-ed the Test. There is a temptation to play a spinner at The Oval because the pitch favours turn pretty early in the piece: Saqlain Mushtaq routinely wreaks havoc there for Surrey while Ian Salisbury wreaks something approaching disorder. The case for selecting one is enhanced by the cast-iron necessity for at least two slow bowlers on tour. It makes a kind of sense to give one a bash now.

As the selectors have been discovering, however, the trouble is that spinners in England have been so discouraged for so long that they assume spin is what tops, spiders and government spokesmen do. They have probably toyed with four or five names. Phil Tufnell and Ashley Giles, the left-armers, were at the top of their list.

It is mysterious, is it not, that the selectors have suddenly rediscovered the value of spinners turning the ball in to bats- men, having jettisoned Chris Schofield, the Lancashire leg-spinner, at the start of the series because West Indies had so many left-handers. Jason Brown and Graeme Swann, the Northamptonshire off-spinners, together with Robert Croft, Peter Such and Schofield, were all doubtless mentioned, some of them politely.

It is worth suggesting they leave well alone, resist adding a spinner for the sake of it now. None is likely to win a match, unless the mercurial Tufnell somehow rekindled his glory days, and the four seamers, all in form, allied to seven batsmen (not usually a healthy policy), should ensure a draw.

There has been much confident talk in the corridors of power about being positive and going into this decisive match trying to win, as though any one of the English slow bowlers held the secrets of the world in their fingers. Loose talk costs Test series. A draw is enough for England, a draw could be the limit of their aspirations at this point in their long climb.

Nasser Hussain, the captain, said yesterday at Lord's that there would definitely be a spinner in the squad, and the conditions would determine his place. "You've been saying all summer that the next Test match is the crucial one," he told reporters. "Well, this time you're right. We're desperate to win it." Trying to secure a draw is clearly not in his mind. "You pick your best four bowlers for the conditions."

Whatever those conditions prove to be, it must be fervently hoped that they let the match continue beyond the third day for only the second time in the series. If this summer has been good for England so far - what a length of time it has been since they won both Test series and one-day trophy - it has been a poor advertisement for Test cricket as the best of all long games. Hussain, too, conceded as much, talking about the classic Test match which requires spin.

Having decided, surely, to retain their 11 from Headingley with a seaming 12th man as cover, Graveney and his colleagues should have given Tuf-nell their blessing. Only their qualms about his fitness for touring will have persuaded them that the genial Giles is a better option. If Tufnell is not in this morning's squad he will not be in tomorrow's either.

England are taking 16 for the Tests and 14 for the one-dayers to both Pakistan and Sri Lanka. The one-day party will also go to Kenya for the mini-World Cup in October. Giles or Tufnell will be joined by Schofield, and while they will be mildly alarm-ed at the prospect, the selectors would be well advised to consider Swann, a brash all-rounder. He has much to do but has raw talent, a profound self-belief and is one of those who adds to the gaiety of nations.

Matthew Hoggard will go as the latest young seamer, for now, to whom the flame has been passed. They have talked about sending a second wicketkeeper in case Alec Stewart breaks down, which seems excessive as he will be the fittest, cleanest-living man on tour and thinks that breakdowns are something that happen to cars or washing machines. Instead, they might profitably take as eighth batsman John Crawley, a solid player of spin because of his soft hands honed on northern pitches, who could give Stewart a keeping break in the up-country matches.

There is a danger in this. Crawley, who appears much more relaxed these days, was an indifferent tourist in the past and is another who has not made the adjustment to the top level despite three hundreds and an average of 31. It would be decidedly unlucky on Chris Read, but there simply is not the work for a second keeper.

If they have a long-term policy (think Ashes, remember) the claims of Andrew Flintoff will be hard to ignore. But ignore them they probably will. The one-day squad should give the chance to continue nurturing Vikram Solanki and Paul Franks, newly installed as the Cricket Writers' Club Young Player of the Year. But let England first win this Test series.

Possible squads:

Test: N Hussain (capt), M A Atherton, M E Trescothick, G P Thorpe, A J Stewart, M P Vaughan, G A Hick, C White, D G Cork, A R Caddick, D Gough, M J Hoggard, A F Giles

Tour party: As above plus C P Schofield, J P Crawley, A Flintoff.

One-day party: N Hussain, N V Knight, M E Trescothick, G A Hick, G P Thorpe, A J Stewart, C White, A R Caddick, D Gough, A Flintoff, A D Mullally, M A Ealham, V S Solanki, P J Franks.

Visons of brilliance: Tales of those who saw the best of Curtly Ambrose close up


Pakistan batsman who was Ambrose's first

Test victim

I was on 29 and batting pretty well. This new West Indian fast bowler had taken the new ball and, look, he seemed all right, but equally was nothing out of the ordinary. Then he bowled me a yorker. It was the first one he had bowled and it did for me. I didn't pick it up, partly because I was colour blind, partly because of the huge height from which it was coming down, partly because it was just such a good ball. It bowled me, I had gone for 29. Ambrose always troubled me for the rest of the series, he emerged that quickly. I should say he is in the top 10 of all fast bowlers, perhaps behind only Dennis Lillee and Malcolm Marshall. He never said anything, that was the thing about West Indian bowlers and believe me, that was quite as discomforting as the constant barracking you would get from Lillee. Ambrose hated giving anything away from the very start, he had a lot of quiet confidence in his ability. I was a front-foot player, I played Curtly more than any other bowler from the crease.


The Northamptonshire stalwart who kept wicket to Ambrose for seasons

He was the best I have ever stood to, no question. Nor was he as difficult as some because he didn't have much of what we keepers call wobble. His control and his ability to hit the seam were wonderful. Curtly had a fantastic temperament, never wasted energy on idle words. I only saw him angry once and I still don't know why. He had a real go at Kevin Shine, who was Hampshire's No 11. We were winning easily at Bournemouth and it wasn't as though he was likely to delay us for long, but Curtly gave him a real mouthful for a couple of overs and bowled faster and faster. He became a really fine team-mate. His natural quietness perhaps didn't help in that regard, but his sense of humour pervaded the dressing room, and when we put him in the slips that helped his involvement. I lived a couple of doors away from him for a year or so and when it was my benefit year I asked him to write a piece. He wrote it himself on a crunched-up scrap piece of paper and brought it round. That meant a lot to me.


The great New Zealand all-rounder who was the first bowler to take 400 Test wickets

The most noticeable quality, perhaps the most meaningful, was that he kept it simple. Too many bowlers overcomplicate matters. He had a fluent action which gave him rhythm, and then simply probed a line outside the off-stump at a length which gave batsmen constant difficulties. He recognised that pace was not everything. Allied to his height, it made him one of the great bowlers. It almost certainly helped him to have played county cricket for so long. It is there that you can hone your skills in match conditions six days a week. You are not going to come steaming in every day, but you work out conditions and match importance without letting down your colleagues. His refusal to waste energy on sledging was also reminiscent of my attitude. He has been a very exceptional bowler even by the standards of West Indies in the past quarter of a century. The rueful shake of the head, the big, beaming grin, they are images which will endure.