England study short-game solution

Simon O'Hagan weighs the options as selectors meet to decide one- day side
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Grantham may not be exactly synonymous with cricket, but the birthplace of Margaret Thatcher was in its way an appropriate place for the England selectors to meet last night to decide the squad for the Texaco Trophy series that starts on Thursday. After all, she was not for turning, and nor will be any of the wickets on which the three matches against India will be played.

Conditions at The Oval, Headingley and Old Trafford may prove to be as important to the outcome as whichever combination of personnel the selectors have by now come up with (the list of names should be on a Ceefax screen near you soon after 11 o'clock this morning). Because while England may go into the series on the back of a winter run in which they have lost 10 of their last 13 one-day matches, their recent home record in this form of cricket is surprisingly good. When India were last here, in 1990, England lost the one-day series 2-0. Since then, though, they have beaten West Indies 3-0 (in 1991), Pakistan 4-1 (1992), New Zealand 1-0 (1994), South Africa 2-0 (1994), and West Indies 2-1 (1995). The 3-0 defeat they suffered at Australia's hands in 1993 could be explained on the grounds of historical inevitability.

This is one of the reasons why the Texaco series promises to be much more even than is suggested by the respective recent records of the two teams. England were by some distance the poorest of the Test-ranked nations in the World Cup, India - at any rate until the debacle of their semi- final against Sri Lanka - one of the most accomplished. Yet the chastening effect of their experience in the sub-continent, along with the arrival of David Lloyd as coach, should at least ensure that England's attitude is much more positive.

Talk to any English cricketer about the state of the game and he will tell you that it is not nearly as bad as the present form of the national side would indicate. There is a lot of hurt pride around the counties. Players know that how the England team perform is a reflection on them. Of course the system is riven with faults, but the feeling that the time has come to show that England players are not intrinsically worse than any other country's is very strong.

England need a restorative, and victory in the Texaco would provide one. For that reason, the squad - 14 players are expected to be named - may not have much relevance to the three Tests that follow. Only those who are right for one-day cricket will get in.

Of nobody is that description truer than Alistair Brown, the Surrey batsman who was pinch-hitting to considerable effect long before most people had heard of Sanath Jayasuriya. His batting in the group stages of the Benson and Hedges Cup, the same format as which will apply in the Texaco, virtually demands his inclusion. The fact that the first match is on his home ground is in his favour, and his selection would certainly capture the public's imagination.

The idea that Brown might open with someone other than Mike Atherton - say, Nick Knight - will surely not be taken up. If Atherton makes any sense at all in one-day cricket, it is as a foil to hitters at the other end. You wouldn't want him coming in lower down with 40 needed off five overs. The Nos 3 and 4 choose themselves - Graeme Hick and Graham Thorpe, though if the selectors were to fight shy of Brown, they could do a lot worse than promote Hick to opener alongside Atherton.

Robin Smith's decline, and uncertainty against Indian spin, leaves room for someone to come in at No 5. I think Matthew Maynard of Glamorgan will, and should, be the man, edging out Andrew Symonds and leaving Nasser Hussain to return for the Test series. At No 6, Alec Stewart as wicketkeeper- batsman. Painful though it is to suggest that Jack Russell should be kept out, Stewart has scored much more heavily in the B & H.

There is room for two all-rounders at Nos 7 and 8. Ronnie Irani is one. The claims of Mark Ealham and Craig White look to me less convincing, and if Ray Illingworth can summon the forbearance for which he is admittedly not renowned, the other place could go to Chris Lewis, whose career seems to be coming together again at Surrey. Another Surrey man, Adam Hollioake, was being given series consideration.

English spin is not in the best of health, but the selectors can surely do better than offer up the distinctly unthreatening Richard Illingworth to eager Indian batsmen. Peter Such is the man. He bowls tightly while still asking questions. To open the bowling: Dominic Cork and Darren Gough, although the latter might struggle for a place if Angus Fraser were a better fielder.

My 14: Atherton, Brown, Hick, Thorpe, Maynard, Stewart, Irani, Lewis, Cork, Fraser, Such, Gough, Peter Martin, Ealham.