England aim to clinch series

Derek Pringle on the importance of winning the toss in today's Lord's Test
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Mohammad Azharuddin has good cause to remember the Lord's Test. The last time India's captain was here, he scored a memorable century. Unfortunately, it followed an innings of even greater magnitude by Graham Gooch, whose monolithic 333 was made after Azharuddin had unwisely inserted England on a pitch where 1,603 runs were scored. It is a decision that has dogged him ever since, and provided what was probably the first swell of the tide of criticism now gathering against him.

Winning the toss at Lord's has become increasingly important over the last few years, now that new drainage has caused the water table to retreat. The pitch is at its best for batting on the first two days, whereafter it quickens, with the bounce becoming less even as the surface wears without ever really encouraging spin. Today's pitch, although the same strip, is less cracked than last year's surface.

In order to get back into this series, Azharuddin knows India will have to bat first and score a big total if they are to apply the necessary pressure needed to force enough openings for Anil Kumble and the excellent pair of opening bowlers, Javagal Srinath and Venkatash Prasad, to exploit.

With those bowlers more than pulling their weight in the last Test, India look certain to include seven batsman, with Nayan Mongia likely to open in place of Ajaysinhji Jadeja, who will drop to No 6.

However, unless Sanjay Manjrekar plays - and he is still not fully recovered from the ankle he injured during the last Test - it is a strategy that will again be over-reliant upon Sachin Tendulkar and his increasingly troubled captain to get the runs.

In a team that has already blooded four players in the last Test, India badly need Manjrekar's experience to prop up the early order and to prevent Tendulkar's early exposure to the new ball. If he does not play, Rahul Dravid, a 23-year-old batsman from Karnataka, will take his place, adding still further to the list of recent debutants. Although the all-rounder Saurav Ganguly will probably bat at three. It is a turnover that betrays both injury (Sunil Joshi who broke his finger at Edgbaston is the latest to fly home) and disarray, and it was interesting to see both Viv Richards and Javed Miandad, coaching India's frontline batsmen on Tuesday.

England on the other hand are in fine fettle, despite the late withdrawal of Nick Knight on Tuesday. The stirring win their footballing counterparts had over the Netherlands, has put the handful of them that went to Wembley, in good heart. Alec Stewart, who as Knight's replacement gets another opportunity to resume his opening partnership with his captain, has a right to more pleased than most and he will relish pulling the three lions on once more in front of a full house at Lord's.

It will be Stewart's 54th Test, and it is telling that England unlike their opponents have someone with such vast experience to call on. Lord's, despite being enemy territory for him at county level, has been good to him. Apart from making his first Test hundred here, he has scored 733 runs at an average of 61.

With Raymond Illingworth's mind occupied over his emptying pocket, Stewart will not have to ready himself to keep wicket, a surprise sprung on him last year, when Illingworth packed off Steve Rhodes, the first-choice keeper. But if that decision was based on the chairman of selector's gut instinct, the one made between playing a spinner (Min Patel) or an extra seamer (Peter Martin), will apparently be based how the pitch scrubs up this morning.

"It is not often we go into a Test without a spinner," Michael Atherton, England's captain, said yesterday. "Whichever combination we play, it will be an aggressive decision based on who we think will get the most wickets, rather than a defensive one.''

Last year it was the pace bowlers, who exclusively did for the West Indies batsmen. Making his debut, and bowling primarily from the Nursery End, Dominic Cork ripped away the West Indian batting with second innings figures of 7 for 43. With Chris Lewis and Alan Mullally likely to operate from the Pavilion end, a near repeat will surely wrap this series up. And should Cork get the ball to swing, he may well force Dickie Bird, that most reticent of umpires, who is to be granted honorary life membership of MCC, into giving a few lbw's in his last Test. Bird will be further honoured by an honorary doctorate from Sheffield Hallam University for his unique contribution to cricket.

"It will be important not to step off the gas and rest upon one good game," Atherton said. "We still need the enthusiasm and commitment we showed at Edgbaston, but it would be nice to wrap the series up at Lord's.''

ENGLAND (from): M A Atherton (capt), A J Stewart, N Hussain, G P Thorpe, G A Hick, R C Irani, R C Russell (wkt), C C Lewis, D G Cork, P J Martin, A D Mullally, M M Patel.

INDIA (probable): V Rathore, N R Mongia (wkt), S C Ganguly, S R Tendulkar, M Azharuddin (capt), A D Jadeja, R S Dravid, A Kumble, J Srinath, P L Mhambrey, B K V Prasad.