England agonise over Ramprakash and Crawley

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The Independent Online
England's cricket selectors will today sit down to pick a winter tour squad to South Africa, and now that there is no clause in the small print requiring them to immerse the likes of Devon Malcolm in a tub of white emulsion, they will shortly be embarking on their first official visit since 1968.

Whether or not the current chairman of selectors remembers, it was partly down to him that the Basil D'Oliveira affair led to the 27-year breakdown in cricketing relations. D'Oliveira was only added to the squad when Tom Cartwright withdrew through injury, and it was the replacement of a bowler with a batsman which led to the odious John Vorster claiming a professional foul.

Doug Insole, the then chairman of selectors, explained D'Oliveira's inclusion by claiming that the unavailability of Illingworth and Barry Knight left England with no like-for-like replacement, hence D'Oliveira, hence no tour. Apart from Insole, the other selectors were Alec Bedser, Peter May, Don Kenyon, Arthur Gilligan, Gubby Allen and Colin Cowdrey. It was a moot point as to which was more expensive - the loss of the tour, or the selectors' dinner bill.

This time, the political climate is so different that, if the world rugby cup is any guide, the current president of South Africa will dress up for the opening Test in full cricketing flannels and a green and gold baggy cap. It is also a reminder that the England selectors have other business on the agenda - choosing not only an A team squad for the first official visit to Pakistan since Mike Gatting and Shakoor Rana got involved in a minor disagreement over field placings, but also 14 for the World Cup in February and March.

The most serious mission, though, is the senior tour, which will involve 16 players, one of whom - tradition dictates - will accept the Claude Rains trophy as the tour's invisible man. Recent recipients include Joey Benjamin, Ricardo Ellcock and Les Taylor, or so it is alleged as no one actually remembers seeing any of them.

Another traditional task is to begin by writing down the names of the certainties, in which case the blazer measurements of Atherton, Stewart, Thorpe, Hick, Smith, Russell, Fraser and Cork will already be at the tailor's. It would also be a surprise if Gough, Malcolm and Richard Illingworth occupy too much discussion time, which leaves five places to be argued about.

Illingworth, Raymond that is, has also stated a preference for a third specialist opener, which presumably boils down to Nick Knight or Jason Gallian - although if Stewart's finger escapes its customary breakage, look no further for the C Rains award.

It can also be self-defeating to restrict yourselves to a regular opener if there are classier performers available, and if either Knight or Gallian is chosen (or possibly Martyn Moxon) the trickiest debate of the meeting will be between John Crawley and Mark Ramprakash. Neither has yet to graduate to Test cricket, but there is now a case for England to give an extended run to both of them, much in the manner of the Australians or the West Indies.

Illingworth is not a great admirer of Crawley's technique, although Graham Thorpe has managed to overcome his own early tendency to play off stump deliveries with a legside blade, and Ramprakash's response to his Test match pair at Lord's has been three double-centuries and three centuries in 11 first-class innings since. If there is one more batsman to enter this particular equation, it could be Nasser Hussain.

While a second spinner is required to partner Illingworth, it is unlikely to be Philip Tufnell. The uncomplimentary passages in his last three tour reports would be marginally thicker than the London A-Z, and England now set great store by the good egg syndrome when it comes to team (and more particularly, tour) morale.

It is this aspect which also offers Peter Martin a decent chance to further his Test career, and Tim Munton also deserves serious consideration. It is a myth that Munton takes most of his wickets at Edgbaston, or indeed that Warwickshire's county pitches have mirrored the dog-eared heap used for the Test.

Dermot Reeve, is among several players who will be considered separately for the World Cup squad, and they will have an early net by flying out to South Africa to compete in the seven one-day internationals after the Test series is over.

ENGLAND (possible): M A Atherton, A J Stewart, G P Thorpe, G A Hick, R A Smith, M R Ramprakash, J P Crawley, R J Russell, D G Cork, D Gough, M Watkinson, A R C Fraser, R K Illingworth, D E Malcolm, P J Martin, T A Munton.

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