England will keep faith with Edgbaston heroes

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The Independent Online
It is surely some small measure of how confident the England selectors are going into Thursday's Test at Lord's that they will conduct tonight's selection meeting by mobile phone. But if scanner operators with Australian sympathies are hoping to glean and pass on anything worthwhile, they are wasting their time. England, barring unforeseen injury, will remain unchanged from the squad which assembled at Edgbaston - a squad that prepared as hopefuls but left as conquerors.

In truth, geography does have some bearing on the matter too, and with David Graveney at Old Trafford, Mike Gatting at Cardiff and Graham Gooch in Hove, only a motorway cafe would still have its doors open by the time their paths crossed. However, had England lost in Birmingham, 10 gallons of unleaded and some lukewarm scampi and chips would definitely have been on the menu.

Victory in the first Test is a luxury that has rarely been accorded to England's selectors in recent Ashes series. Normally, by the time the Lord's Test has come around, the Poms are one down, the chairman of selectors and his cohorts are being bad-mouthed by public and press alike, and about half the players have been dropped. As Lord's is a ground on which the home side have only beaten the Aussies once this century, in 1934, it is usually two down after two, as mounting hysteria causes the selectorial axe to swing further out of control.

County cricket may for the most part be chummy and uncompetitive, but it never destroyed a player's confidence and self-belief quite as surely as being one of the many scapegoats sent back to the parishes every time England failed to play to potential - which was often.

It is that confidence, so precious and yet so elusive, that England are currently overdosing on and which helps a player reach that potential. Fortunately the current selectors, unlike many of their predecessors, know its worth, which in the pressure-cooker environment of Test cricket is a lot more than the former yardstick - often applied by perusing the newspapers over breakfast - of picking those with recent runs or wickets in county cricket.

Nobody better recognises this than Gooch and Gatting, both of whom suffered from having to captain England sides forever being tinkered with by those long removed from the game. It was only in 1991, when Gooch more or less got his way over selections for the series against the West Indies, that England kept a fairly settled side after going one-nil up in the first Test.

While the squad that congregates at Lord's next Tuesday will be unchanged, save for the addition of Essex's opening bowler Ashley Cowan, the team may have to be tinkered with if the pitch looks like helping spin to the same degree it did last year against Pakistan. At this stage, though, nothing is certain, except that Lord's is not good for batting on the final day, unless victory is assured before lunch.

Like Alex Tudor, who was brought along to Edgbaston, Cowan is seen as a young player who could soon be knocking on the England dressing-room door. At 22 he is three years older than Tudor and vastly more experienced. Both are tall and generate bounce, though Cowan, if not quite as quick as Tudor, has the enviable quality of naturally shaping the ball towards the slips. It is only right that their appetites are stimulated in this way.

There is no doubt that keeping players happy and making them feel wanted is the key to good man management, though keeping them honest is just as important. While Nasser Hussain will not need to be told how important his innings was at Edgbaston, John Crawley, one of England's conspicuous batting failures, will need to be encouraged that it could be his turn next.

Similarly Darren Gough, having bowled his socks off, returned to Yorkshire with a niggle in his shins. In the past Gough would have needed to be on crutches to get out of taking the new ball. Instead Yorkshire, completely unprompted by chairman of selectors Graveney, have rested the fast bowler from their current Championship match. Surrey have similarly rested Graham Thorpe, though both are expected to play against each other tomorrow.

It is this new willingness - at least on the part of some counties - to put England first that has sent the right messages to those involved. With county and country pulling together, England have their best chance in a decade of regaining the Ashes. Only retaining them in Australia in 1999 can surpass that achievement, should it happen this summer.

ENGLAND (Second Test v Australia, Lord's, 19-23 June) (probable squad): M Atherton (capt), A Stewart (wkt), M Butcher, N Hussain, G Thorpe, J Crawley, R Croft, D Gough, A Caddick, D Malcolm, A Hollioake, P Tufnell.

Mike Atherton receives OBE, page 6