Team England: New approaches, same old faces

The dozen entrusted with cricket's brighter tomorrow are familiar with failure

England may still be searching desperately for a slip lane off the road to nowhere but at least they are learning to read the map. If the system of central contracts announced last Wednesday is properly recognised as an important signpost - by no means a foregone conclusion - there is the prospect that one day in the distant future the promised land itself will loom into view.

England may still be searching desperately for a slip lane off the road to nowhere but at least they are learning to read the map. If the system of central contracts announced last Wednesday is properly recognised as an important signpost - by no means a foregone conclusion - there is the prospect that one day in the distant future the promised land itself will loom into view.

It took two years, the compulsory working party and a plethora of diplomacy before the 12 ground-breaking names could be declared. Much, perhaps everything, now depends on how the selectors and the counties respond. For the first time, Team England may amount to something more tangible than an irksome marketing slogan.

The first benefit of the revolutionary structure, which has been normal practice elsewhere since the day after the invention of the wheel, is the establishment of training camps, hitherto among English cricketers probably attended only by Matthew Fleming of Kent, who used to be in the Army. Three are already planned, for early in April, for a few days before the First Test against Zimbabwe beginning on 18 May and again before the First Test against West Indies on 15 June.

This initial mixed bag can be known as a Fletcher's Dozen after Duncan of that ilk, England's coach, who was heavily influential in the choice. It is an uneasy blend of achievement, potential and last chance and it is likely to be short-lived. It has also ruined the sense of anticipation and excitement usually occasioned by the selection of the team for the summer's first Test, this year to be formally announced at 11am on Sunday, 14 May.

In effect the team have been picked 11 weeks in advance because the three Championship matches (at most) to be played before the Test can surely have no effect on those deemed good enough to be, to all intents and purposes, employees of the England and Wales Cricket Board, not their county clubs.

If the selectors picked anybody else at such an early stage they would be admitting that they had already got it wrong. They would also be opening up the way to division in the dressing room. The official line, naturally, is that the system does not bar the way to those players without contracts. Nor should it, but it would neither take long for such a player to be wondering why he is not as deserving of reward similar to his colleagues nor for his club to be demanding similar compensation for his services.

There is not much point in arguing strenuously with the identities of Fletcher's Dozen. He and his fellow selectors, the chairman, David Graveney, and the captain, Nasser Hussain, had to start somewhere. They are split into four categories, A, B, C and D, the rewards being different for each. Presumably, the top band consists of five players, the men who have formed the core of the side, Hussain, Michael Atherton, Alec Stewart, Andrew Caddick and Darren Gough. Quite right too. The second group will contain Graeme Hick and Mark Ramprakash, the third Dean Headley, Andrew Flintoff, Michael Vaughan and Craig White. The fourth has been created especially for the 21-year-old Lancashire leg spinner, Chris Schofield.

Hick and Ramprakash were vaguely surprising because both had been omitted from the winter Test parties. Both, it has been much reported, have now been recalled eight or nine times and who's counting. Both men are also anxious to succeed to fulfil their rich talent.

Hick has scored 105 hundreds but he knows the score: only five of them have been in Tests. He is not given to shows of emotion but not long ago, chatting to him about this, he was quietly emphatic about what he wanted to do in the next five years and how much it meant to him.

The inclusion of Craig White is another selectorial punt, not all of which have been hugely successful under Graveney's regime. White last appeared in a Test in New Zealand early in 1997 a few months before Graveney's chairmanship began. He has been picked now because he impressed with his approach after being called up belatedly to the squad on the recent one-day tour.

White is a good cricketer and a tip-top fellow but last summer he had a batting average for Yorkshire of 17 and a bowling average of 25.

Schofield has been picked on promise, partly because there is a dearth of finger spin, partly because England are in thrall to the idea of having a match-winning wrist spinner. More than anybody else of Fletcher's Dozen, he can benefit from specific coaching and matches.

It would be wonderful if a young man who has played only 18 first-class matches went on to succeed. History, however, suggests that there was a case for picking Michael Davies, the 23-year-old Northamptonshire slow left- arm bowler who has the merit of more sustained accuracy. Of the 35 England bowlers who have taken 100 Test wickets, 10 have been left-arm spinners and only one a leg spinner. Australia unearth leg spinners, England do not and it is folly to try to follow them slavishly.

Stephen Harmison, the Durham fast bowler, might have been the sort to be considered, too. He is 21, known to be a home bird uncertain about going into the big, wide world and might benefit from close nurturing. Last year he also bowled 565.5 overs. Too many, and a repeat because he is not under a watchful eye could cost him and England dear.

The chief omission was Graham Thorpe, a proper reminder to the country's most formidable middle-order batsman who announced his withdrawal from the winter tour via the press, that playing for England is an honour never to be treated cavalierly.

All in all, this is a good thing, a move towards that slip lane. But lest anybody think it is a panacea, remember that seven of these central contractees were in the side when the Ashes were last lost.

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