Thorpe, Gough and Stewart the tests of Graveney's convictions

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The Independent Online

It is as well for David Graveney's state of mind that England displayed a semblance of form in the Test series against Zimbabwe. Nothing would have been straightforward otherwise, and most of his thoughts might have been turning to what on earth a chairman of selectors does for his next job.

As it is, he is still hardly sitting pretty on a bed of roses. The business part of the summer starts here, and on Thursday the chairman and his three fellows meet to choose the team for the first match of the compressed, five-Test series against South Africa, aware that life could yet turn prickly. The administering of two of the soundest thrashings since Flashman was showing Tom Brown who was boss - both ending on the third day - should have fooled nobody. "It is fair to say that this is the most vexing selection in my period as chairman," said Graveney. Considering that under his stewardship sides for four losing Ashes series have been picked, you can be sure that this makes it pretty tricky.

A winning team will certainly be changed, and the panel will be forced to examine three key areas. These concern the places of a batsman, a seam bowler and the wicketkeeper, and three of England's most accomplished cricketers. The players in question are Graham Thorpe, Darren Gough and Alec Stewart: two currently out of the Test side and one, as he seems to have been since the dawn of time, in it.

In addition, the selectors will obviously bring back Andrew Flintoff as the side's all-rounder. They will also, of course, include Nasser Hussain as captain, who is coming back only in the sense that he is replacing Michael Vaughan, who has led a happy, winning one-day side for a month. It will be intriguing to see if the transition works as smoothly as it does in Australia.

The batting place will probably occupy most of the fat-chewing. Thorpe is vying for it with Anthony McGrath and Robert Key. There will be no returning to the past (John Crawley has not done well enough for Hampshire) or embracing a new boy (Vikram Solanki is considered too cavalier for Test cricket). Until two days ago, Thorpe was probably the favourite to regain the place he relinquished last summer after playing two of the most desultory shots by a specialist batsman that Lord's has witnessed. Domestic disharmony - his marriage was breaking up, he was desperate to ensure access to his children - meant that he could not concentrate on the game.

A measure of his talent is that Graveney has been to see him for a chat on Thorpe's state of mind. The batsman told Sky Sports yesterday that his life had moved on, and he could throw his energy and focus into cricket again.

The other candidates, McGrath and Key, will be viewed differently. McGrath was a surprising choice, apparently as an all-rounder, back in May when Flintoff was crocked. He has scored half-centuries in both his Test innings and took three wickets in a telling little burst in the opening Test match.

The return of Flintoff, however, means that the Yorkshireman would have to be chosen as the No 5 batsman. That would be a selection on which you might have fancied a long-odds punt when McGrath finished 115th in the first-class batting averages last summer. You might have thought it wiser to bet on Will Jefferson or Darren Bicknell, who were, respectively, immediately above and below him. The selectors will be asking themselves if McGrath is truly a Test No 5. McGrath, who has performed admirably, will be asking himself much the same question.

As for Key, he has been out of form. Apart from taking runs from some students, his top score in 18 innings was 68. Then, on Thursday he made 140 against Nottinghamshire. It was a flat deck, but Key observed the proprieties. Key has a staunch supporter on the selection panel in Rod Marsh, who worked with him at the National Academy. Marsh is a strong ally, and if Duncan Fletcher is also on his side, Key will be retained. If he is jettisoned now, the selectors would be admitting that they spotted wrong.

If they are worried about his batting average of 18.77 in 13 innings in Test matches, they might examine precedent. There was another chap, by coincidence, who had 13 innings in his first eight Tests. By then, he also had one fifty, but his average was only 17.20. The selectors stuck with him. Name of Steve Waugh.

The bandwagon to terminate Stewart's Test career has picked up more passengers in the past four weeks than London Transport after the introduction of congestion charges. Chris Read's performances in the NatWest Series have marked him out as an obvious successor, who should become an instant one.

Read, too, has an influential supporter in Marsh. But he is not an automatic choice as heir. Graveney, for instance, regularly mentions Geraint Jones, the Kent wicketkeeper, who was born in Papua New Guinea and brought up in Australia. Doubtless Stewart will be retained, but an opportunity is being missed. Read all about it on Friday.

The case of Gough is no less fraught. If Thorpe's mind is the difficulty, with Gough it is his body. He has performed wonders to get back to the international arena in the one-day season. His bowling has possessed all the gusto and joy of old. He can teach the new dogs some tricks. But the knee will surely not withstand five days - which the matches against South Africa are likely to last. It may never do so again. The attack lacks experience. James Anderson, Richard Johnson and Steve Harmison, let us not forget, have played 10 matches between them. Flintoff's seaming role could therefore be vital.

Johnson's body has already shown a tendency to revolt against bowling fast, which it has demonstrated throughout his 10 years as a professional. His Test career will surely be short, but it might be effective. If he fails to make the team this time, Graveney and his men may have to award a cap to James Kirtley. The likeliest lad would be Jimmy Ormond, the Surrey seamer, who hits the deck and has 30 Championship wickets at 24.

But that is Ormond's trouble: he is a likely lad. That has already proved too much for Fletcher's state of mind.