Strauss set to pay heavy price for loss of form

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The Independent Online

Andrew Strauss and Stephen Harmison will discover whether they are part of England's immediate plans this morning when David Graveney, the chairman of selectors, announces the squad for the three Test pre-Christmas tour of Sri Lanka.

Strauss is almost certain to be dropped for the first time in his 43-Test career. The 30-year-old, who has failed to post a Test hundred in the last year, will meet with Graveney prior to the lunchtime announcement at The Oval, and the chairman of selectors seldom visits a player of Strauss' standing to inform him of good news. Strauss' omission would result in Michael Vaughan once again opening the batting, Ian Bell coming in at three and Owais Shah or Ravi Bopara – not Mark Ramprakash – batting at six.

Harmison is expected to be named in the party, although his place will only be confirmed once he has successfully come through a two-match fitness test in Johannesburg. Harmison has been asked by the England and Wales Cricket Board to travel to South Africa to prove his fitness by playing in two four-day matches prior to the team's departure for Sri Lanka on 14 November. He will be accompanied by England's new bowling coach, Ottis Gibson, and the endorsement of his selection will only be made once he has impressed on the high veldt.

The itinerary in Sri Lanka, which includes three back-to-back Tests after two warm-up matches, and the hope that Andrew Flintoff would be fit, meant that England were initially planning on a 15-man squad. But the absence of Flintoff, along with the fact that Harmison has not played a competitive game of cricket since mid-August, means that the party will be increased to 16. The Durham fast bowler will need to impress on his arrival in Sri Lanka, too, if he is to regain his place in the Test side. Harmison's Test form in the past 12 months, a period in which he has taken 26 wickets at just under 45 runs apiece, has been poor.

Stuart Broad, who starred during England's one-day series victory in Sri Lanka, is set to benefit, joining fellow seamers Ryan Sidebottom, James Anderson, Matthew Hoggard and Harmison for what will be a physically demanding tour for fast bowlers.

The possible return of Ramprakash has gathered momentum and Peter Moores, the England coach, said that the selectors would consider the Surrey star. In the last two years Ramprakash could not have done more to merit inclusion, averaging more than 100 in each season.

Yet selecting the 38-year-old with a Test average of 27 ahead of a younger man averaging over 40 could hardly be described as a progressive step. And who would he replace? If Ramprakash were selected, he would have to play in the first Test in Kandy on 1 December. Picking him as a back-up player would be pointless.

Omitting Strauss, and possibly Harmison, players with central contracts, will be a first for the ECB. Centrally contracted players have missed tours in the past but it has been for fitness reasons. And it will not be the last, especially if a rotation policy is brought in by the ECB. Kevin Pietersen continues to comment on the demands made on an England player, and it is believed that he enquired about the possibility of missing Sri Lanka ahead of his wedding this Christmas. He will tour, however, but his concerns appear not to be falling on deaf ears. In an attempt to reduce the players' workload the ECB is considering introducing a system that allows players to miss the occasional tour to recharge their batteries.

Spin bowling will play a crucial role in Sri Lanka and the selectors will have been delighted with the excellent form shown by Graeme Swann during the one-day series. Swann bowled with skill and adventure in the four matches he played.

England are expected to play two spinners and two specialist fast bowlers, with a combination of Paul Collingwood and Bopara acting as a third seamer.

Matthew Prior's disappointing end to the season and lack of central contract is unlikely to cost him a place in the tour party, while Tim Ambrose, who scored 858 first-class runs at an average of 45 last summer, could well gain full England selection for the first time as the second keeper.

Possible squad: M P Vaughan (capt), T R Ambrose (wkt), J M Anderson, I R Bell, R S Bopara, S C J Broad, P D Collingwood, A N Cook, S J Harmison, M J Hoggard, M S Panesar, K P Pietersen, M J Prior (wkt), O A Shah, R J Sidebottom, G P Swann.

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