England still too cautious

Henry Blofeld reports from The Oval on a lack of an aggressive attitude
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The fear of defeat has been a constant companion for England's cricketers for a long time now. Unfortunately, this can become habit-forming for too often it has a debilitating mental effect on the players, of which there were two glaring examples here on the first day.

Michael Atherton said on Wednesday: "Our selections for this game have been deliberately aggressive. We are thinking in terms of winning this game and not saving it."

His view of the selection had been borne out by the inclusion in the original 13 of Phillip Tufnell and Devon Malcolm, both controversial choices. Yet in the last four years they have each won England a Test match here: Tufnell against the West Indies in 1991 and Malcolm against South Africa last year.

On those occasions they showed their considerable ability and even if their curious lack of consistency has always been likely to prevent them becoming regular members of the England side, they still travel under the heading of "horses for courses". And what better course for both than The Oval?

The West Indies will have known from the selection of Macolm and Tufnell that England were going to throw everything at them to try and win this last Test and the series with it. Even after Brian Lara's destruction of Malcolm at Headingley their selection would not have helped West Indies' nerves, which are anyway taut. It seemed a foregone conclusion that Tufnell would play even though a pitch that was clearly not going to have the pace of one produced by Harry Brind, who retired last year as head groundsman here, had made it possible that Malcolm would be left out.

But to have called up these bowlers and then not to have played them both would in the circumstances surely have handed back psychological advantages to the West Indies before a ball had been bowled.

Apparently the chairman, Ray Illingworth, and his fellow selector Fred Titmus, wanted to play Tufnell, but the captain demurred preferring to stick with his fellow Lancastrian, John Crawley, and play six specialist batsmen. In spite of his earlier brave words, Atherton, in plumping for Crawley, had fallen back on the defensive approach. What made this even more surprising was that if Crawley had not played, Nos 6, 7 and 8 in the order - Russell, Watkinson and Cork - have all scored fifties in this series.

Maybe Atherton was horrified at the thought of Tufnell, Malcolm and Angus Fraser filling the last three places in the batting order. If so, this was hardly the approach of a man who was thinking in terms of winning the game and not saving it. At the last, the constant spectre of defeat had crept up behind him with a sandbag and let him have it. He will regret the absence of Tufnell, the best spinner in England long before the end.

The other example of the negative attitude caused by a succession of defeats was revealed by the batsmen, just as it had been at Trent Bridge. In both matches England won a crucial toss but had initially squandered the advantage by over-cautious batting on the first day.

"We must not get out, we must not lose," was again the prevailing mood on the first day rather than "we've got 'em", until Graeme Hick took charge in such splendid style in the evening and in a manner he has not displayed for England before.