Never mind Zimbabwe, the England cricket team face a much stiffer examination next week: a match against Wales. It's a warm-up for the one-day series which already, in only its second year, has the feel of an annual fixture. Last year, Nasser Hussain had the day off, Marcus Trescothick took over as captain, England stuttered to 189 for 9, and Wales - Glamorgan with two guests, Steffan Jones of Somerset and Jacques Kallis of South Africa - won by eight wickets with nine overs to spare.
Man of the match, for his runs as well as wickets, was Robert Croft. He had been a first-choice England player nine months earlier, as they headed for India, but pulled out along with Andy Caddick citing security fears. Caddick was welcomed back into the fold immediately; Croft has never been picked since.
This time, England take on the Welsh, and then Pakistan, Zimbabwe and South Africa, with a squad that has been hailed as fresh and experimental. Another word might be wacky. The selection shows not just a drastic change of personnel but a marked change of policy. With only five survivors from the World Cup, there is a whiff of the bad old days of knee-jerk spring clear-outs.
For four years, Duncan Fletcher has preached consistency and the value of experience, arguing that few one-day players do anything before their 30th appearance. On that basis, only three of this 15 will have much to offer: Trescothick (61 caps), Andrew Flintoff (52) and our dear old thing Darren Gough (111). You could add Michael Vaughan (26), although he will have a lot on his plate taking over as captain in a form of the game which he has yet to master even for Yorkshire.
In his first selection, for England's Test tour of South Africa in 1999-2000, Fletcher picked too many novices - eight of the 17 had played three Tests or fewer. It was a clear blunder, the product of a new coach, a new captain and a noisy press box. It did yield a major player in Vaughan, who, Fletcher later recalled, was only No 17 on the team sheet, and it gave Flintoff his first decent run as an all-rounder; but it also gave places to Chris Adams, Darren Maddy, Gavin Hamilton and Graeme Swann, none of whom has been seen since. There were only three established batsmen, in Mike Atherton, Stewart, and Hussain, and Atherton felt that sank England's chances of winning the series.
Hussain became a relatively cautious selector after that, which is needed given the inherent flightiness of England selections. This one-day squad is the first that Hussain has not had a hand in since 1999, and it shows. Six of the 15 are new to one-day internationals, which might be just about workable if four of them were there to soak up the atmosphere. But the probable starting XI looks something like this: Trescothick, Vaughan, Vikram Solanki, Jim Troughton, Anthony McGrath, Flintoff, Chris Read, Giles, Kabir Ali, Gough and James Anderson, which would mean debuts for Troughton, McGrath and Kabir.
Each of them may be an excellent choice. McGrath gets runs in tight situations for Yorkshire and made a nerveless Test debut. Troughton is a stylish left-hander and a fine fielder. Kabir takes one-day wickets for Worcestershire and is so eager to take the big stage, he already has his own website (www.kabirali.com), billing himself as a "professional cricketer and model".
The best thing for novices, however, is to be slotted in amid stacks of experience. Trescothick took to international cricket so easily partly because he had first Stewart and then Atherton at the other end. Take another look at that middle order: Solanki, Troughton, McGrath. Graham Thorpe must be tempted to sue.
Thorpe is fit, making big runs and unique in his generation of English batsmen in knowing how to finish a one-day innings. The selectors are entitled to be wary after his U-turn over the Ashes, but that was all about a heavy winter programme. This is a month of one-dayers at home. Not picking Thorpe is just a poor use of resources.
There is someone else who could have brought wit and grit to the run chases that England are strangely feeble at: Adam Hollioake. With Paul Collingwood unfit, the selectors have snubbed him again. It can't be to do with form, as he has carried on where he left off last year and has the highest strike rate of any frontline batsman in the Championship First Division (93 runs per 100 balls, ahead of Flintoff with 90). Yet he appears to have been written off as a has-been at 31.
Hollioake is 18 months younger than Darren Lehmann, who has just nailed down Mark Waugh's old place in the Australian team, and three years younger than Mike Brearley was when he made his international debut. He isn't Brearley but he is the best captain in the country, urging Surrey on to become the kind of team England would like to be - domineering, remorseless, Australian. Maybe the game against Wales shouldn't become a tradition after all. England v Surrey would have even more spice.
Tim de Lisle is editor of Wisden Cricketers' Almanack 2003.Reuse content