Team England split by Marsh v Fletcher

First Test countdown: The Read-Jones affair highlights a damaging power battle over who should pick the side

A long international season begins on Thursday accompanied by utter confusion. The thorny question of who runs the English game has now been joined by the still trickier conundrum of who picks the England team.

A long international season begins on Thursday accompanied by utter confusion. The thorny question of who runs the English game has now been joined by the still trickier conundrum of who picks the England team.

Evidence last week showed that the answer to the first is the county chairmen, rather than the executives of the England and Wales Cricket Board who are paid to do so. The answer to the second was the subject of a heated discussion yesterday, but recent signs suggest that it is not the entire four-man selection panel.

The political power struggle will affect the England team only at some unknown point in the future, when it may be too late. But the issue of selection could unsettle the team as early as this week in the First Test against New Zealand, just when so many things in the garden were looking rosy.

Another power struggle of sorts lies at the heart of the matter. It is between the Zimbabwean England coach, Duncan Fletcher, and the Australian director of the National Academy, Rodney Marsh. Somewhere in between appear to lie the two English selectors, David Graveney, the chairman, and Geoff Miller, the former off-spinning all-rounder.

The latest dispute surrounds the place of the wicketkeeper. When the panel picked the squad for the winter tours it was made clear that the first-choice keeper was Chris Read of Nottingham-shire. By the time England had returned from the West Indies his lack of substantial runs had caused him to be supplanted by Geraint Jones. The panel were not consulted, the decision having been taken by the men on the ground, Fletcher and the captain, Michael Vaughan.

Marsh was annoyed to the point of considering resignation, Graveney was probably no more than perplexed. In Australia, Marsh knows they know do things differently, and is new enough to the panel to take these things seriously and personally. Graveney has not managed to stay as chairman for seven seasons without learning the art of pragmatism.

Read and Jones, two exemplary cricketers, are deeply unfortunate to be caught in the middle. Marsh favours Read, first because he rates him highly as a player with the right attitude and plenty of skill, secondly because he thinks he has not been given sufficient opportunity. Fletcher, on the other hand, has always appeared sceptical about Read. He has been slow to support him in public, and there was always the feeling that he would ease him out when the opportunity arose.

There was an intriguing aspect to the replacement of Read by Jones for the Fourth Test, in Antigua. Vaughan, not Fletcher, announced the team, said that Read had not made runs and that Jones would be given a run in the side. This begged the question of what it had to do with Vaughan. He is not a selector, and therefore it is hardly in his gift to be handing out runs in the side to anybody.

There was a case for dropping Read and there wasn't. His keeping has been excellent, better than anything seen in an England shirt since Bob Taylor. But although he helped to save the Second Test in Sri Lanka with a painstaking, scruffy 18 not out, he never looked like making a score in the Caribbean. There were defences: he batted only three times against West Indies, and on bowlers' pitches.

Jones is the better-looking and more accomplished batsman, as he demonstrated yesterday in a sparkling hundred for Kent against the New Zealanders. But anybody who witnessed his wicketkeeping on the first day of the match - apprehensive and untidy - would have been astounded that this was England's wicketkeeper.

Both the selectors and the International Teams Management Group were meeting yesterday. The first bunch were picking the team for the Test, the second, under the chairmanship of Dennis Amiss, were deciding how teams might best be picked in future.

Fletcher is in danger of alienating almost all of those outside the immediate circle. He appears popular with the team (or at least, as is always the case, with those whom he picks) but it is an open secret that he has a tetchy relationship with many of the other officials in the English game. The 3-0 victory under his stewardship in the West Indies has put him in an extremely strong position for the moment, but it should not be forgotten how limp the side were in Sri Lanka. The coach was the same man.

Fletcher's coaching credentials are unquestionable. He spots the little things and, as almost every player concedes, gives quiet, timely advice. But he can be prickly and needlessly suspicious. As a manager abroad he has not always been England's most charming ambassador.

Fletcher frequently keeps his opinions to himself. It is a longstanding joke that two of his favourite phrases when speaking to the press are: "This is not the forum to discuss that," and "I wouldn't know about that." Maybe it is what makes him such a sound coach.

Marsh has never been slow to voice his opinion and was scathing of players after England A's tour of India this year. The nature of the relationship between Fletcher and Marsh at least gave the first meeting of the season a little frisson. Otherwise, it would have been fairly straightforward, with Simon Jones and James Anderson both likely to be in the squad but vying for the last seam-bowling place in the XI.

The selectors might have revisited an earlier disagreement over Nasser Hussain's place in the side - but if Fletcher wants him, he will be in. Hussain was almost left out of the squad for the West Indies tour. He made two key fifties without looking fluent. He perhaps deserves to stay for now, but England must not make the mistake of allowing him the sort of valedictory tour that was accorded to Alec Stewart last summer.

If he goes, the decision must be made between Paul Collingwood, who is centrally contracted, and Andrew Strauss, who is not. Collingwood did not attend the National Academy, Strauss did. Fletcher and Marsh may agree to disagree.

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