England test of balance

Stephen Brenkley studies the options facing the selectors of today's Ashes side
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Continuity has suddenly become the guiding philosophy of the England Test team. It is as if it dawned on the Scout movement last week that being prepared might be a wise move. In England's case the maxim so far is more theory than practice but there seems to be a genuine belief in the air that a settled side, whose members know each other's strengths and weaknesses, will eventually yield improved results.

The suspicion that this might start as soon as the First Test against Australia, which begins on Thursday on an Edgbaston pitch thought at best to be contrary, has also gained astonishing credibility. Australia may be the best Test team in the world by the length of their captain's poor run of form but their preparation for the Ashes series has been distinctly patchy.

Hampered early by cold, damp conditions, they were hammered in the Texaco limited-over series and were restored only partially on a flat pitch at Bristol last week, where two of the side's fringe members, Matthew Elliott and Justin Langer, made hundreds. Mark Taylor, their leader, appears to be in such a dire run that he is beginning to believe the publicity surrounding it. But all this amounts to a mild sniffle rather than a terminal illness and since Australia have feigned this way before, nobody in the England hierarchy will be taking too much notice.

England's side will be announced this morning and while the refreshing new chairman David Graveney declared at the outset that the slate for all previously concerned had been wiped clean, the nucleus of the side is clear. The maxim of continuity was heralded at the end of the New Zealand tour when England, playing the same side for two consecutive matches for the first time in Mike Atherton's tenure as captain, won both.

The only certainty is that there will not be a hat-trick, not of the same XI taking the field, that is. There has to be at least one change from the side who demonstrated New Zealand's impoverishment as Dominic Cork is unfit. The other 10 could stay and from all that Atherton has said this is likely to be his desire as well.

Five of the batsmen are certainties. Nasser Hussain, left out of the one-day squad, has not been in prime form this season with a top score of 67 in seven Championship innings but nor has he been out of it. The doubt, and thus the balance, surrounds the left-handed Warwickshire opener, Nick Knight. He had a mixed winter tour and ended it with a badly broken finger. It delayed his start to this summer and fluency, not surprisingly, has been absent. Whether his vulnerability to the in-swinger in the Texaco series was down to a technical flaw, good bowling or fussy umpiring is a matter of argument but the early dismissals did Knight no good.

Not too much should be read into the 81 he got against Hampshire last week because there is a feeling that taking runs from them at present is marginally easier than snatching a baby's candy. But Knight's marvellous fielding, his vibrant, competitive nature and his left-handedness should save him.

England made a cardinal error - one that seemed obvious to every bloke in every saloon bar - in 1993 when they did not pick left-handers as a matter of policy to try to disrupt Shane Warne, for one. They will want to have two in the top six - one being Graham Thorpe - and the main threat to Knight's position, Mark Butcher is temporarily, and doubtless infuriatingly for him, out of runs.

There is the excellent Hugh Morris, who has already compiled two hundreds, but though he deserves to have been awarded many more than the insulting three Test caps he has won it may not be in line with current policy to make him Glamorgan's sixth Ashes representative at the age of 33.

The batting, as Atherton has pointed out, has lately functioned as a unit. The bowling has not and herein lies the Edgbaston key. The selectors have to get the pitch and then the permutations right. A seaming strip would suit, but now there is word that spin is about in Birmingham.

Darren Gough and Andy Caddick will be in, Devon Malcolm will definitely benefit from the chairman's clean slate and the complete lack of other decent seamers. Dean Headley is injured so they could risk Adam Hollioake as a sort of fourth seamer (career average 43 runs per wicket) and perhaps try to use Robert Croft or Phil Tufnell for stock. Mark Ealham is a possibility, his wicket-taking Kent colleague Martin McCague probably is not, a left- armer such as Simon Brown or Alan Mullally might be, the rest look to be nowhere.

It was William Wordsworth in one of his lesser efforts who wrote: "Continuous as the stars that shine and twinkle along the Milky Way." England's continuous stars can do without the exotic venue. Near Spaghetti Junction would do.

Possible squad: Atherton (capt), Knight, Stewart, Hussain, Thorpe, Crawley, A Hollioake, Croft, Caddick, Gough, Malcolm, Tufnell, Ealham, Mullally.