Essex men can show England the way

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The Independent Online
There will be plenty for England's selectors to be upbeat about when they gather tonight to pick the squad for next week's first Test against India at Edgbaston. For one thing, the victorious side they picked for the Texaco Trophy showed imagination, and for that they deserve applause. However, with revelations of previous selection meetings surfacing in Ray Illingworth's ill-timed book, the remainder of the panel would be advised to check that all sharp cutlery is still on the table before accepting a hearty slap on the back from the chairman.

To win the one-dayers was important, mainly for galvanising the collective morale that had dropped so low in India and Pakistan. New faces can often help that process, which, along with the rehabilitation of jaded regulars, is crucial if a team is to re-establish itself quickly. Happily, both sets of players made important contributions and it is this mixture that the selectors must strive for again, though inevitably some of the one-day personnel will be sacrificed to the different demands and rhythms of the longer game. As is so often the case, a pleasing limited-over hors d'oeuvres is rarely an indicator to the quality of the main course.

It is a misapprehension England have often been duped by in the past, which essentially means there will not be a place for the likes of Alistair Brown, Mark Ealham or Matthew Maynard; each of them seen as gunslingers hired for the shoot-out and not for the longer attritional battles ahead.

It will also mean Alec Stewart handing back the wicketkeeping gloves back to Jack Russell, and possibly his place as an opener to Nick Knight, although the Warwickshire man's cracked finger - bad enough for him to miss the current round of Championship matches - might mean a reprieve for the Surrey captain. If not, then Tony McGrath, Yorkshire's 20-year- old batsman, may find himself testing the deep water.

That Stewart's place is under such threat may shock those who remember the two hundreds in the Barbados Test of 1994. If it does, it will not shock the player himself, who knows Illingworth has been gunning for him for some time. A situation aggravated by personality clashes and not entirely connected to Stewart's run of poor form which has yielded only one half-century in his last 17 Test innings.

His chances of survival are not helped by a similar dip in Atherton's fortunes with the bat, and England would be unwise to risk two players in a slump against India's impressive new ball attack.

In a way, it is Atherton's biggest personal test to date, for the England captain has started the season as hesitantly as he finished the winter, with a lack of form and confidence betrayed by early foot movement that takes him too far across his stumps, leaving him to contemplate a spate of leg befores.

Happily Graham Thorpe and Graeme Hick are both playing well, and both are expected to stamp the promise of their early Test careers on this series. Neither, though, will bat in the problematical No 3 spot, which will go to either Nasser Hussain or John Crawley. Both are deserving of another chance to restart their careers and both will probably be preferred to Robin Smith, whose game has not moved on during the last few years. It is a decision that will probably attract the lengthiest selection debate of the evening.

Should Hussain get the nod, he will probably be joined by his Essex team- mate Ronnie Irani, despite Adam Hollioake's fine form for Surrey. In the past Illingworth has pushed for Craig White, but Irani deserves a chance to fill the all-rounder's role at six. That would leave Jack Russell to bat at seven, a more pivotal position from which to marshall the tail.

Last season the Test pitch against the West Indies at Edgbaston proved lethal, a combination of electrifying pace and uneven bounce ensuring a premature finish in under seven sessions. Already the original strip has been moved to one with a more even covering, suggesting spin is unlikely to play a part.

Mind you, quality spinners do not exactly jump at you from county ranks. Peter Such and Min Patel are the most consistent, while Glamorgan's Robert Croft has again begun to catch the eye. One of them will go to Edgbaston, but the likelihood of a spinner playing against India, a team who plays them better than any other - even when it turns - is highly unlikely.

The case for an all-seam attack is overwhelming. Dominic Cork, Peter Martin and Chris Lewis are all certainties and will be joined by Alan Mullally, Leicestershire's left-arm opening bowler. With 23 Championship wickets this season, Mullally is the form pick ahead of Angus Fraser, Darren Gough, who, despite bowling well in the Texaco, is felt to have lost a bit of nip. A tall man, Mullally extracts more bounce than his rival left-armer, Mark Ilott. He predominantly takes the ball across the right-hander, and offers variety.

PROBABLE ENGLAND XII: M A Atherton (capt), N V Knight (or A J Stewart), N Hussain, G P Thorpe, G A Hick, R C Irani, J C Russell (wkt), C C Lewis, D G Cork, P J Martin, A D Mullally, P M Such.

PERM TWO FROM THREE FOR THREE AND SIX SPOTS

Along with an opening partner for Mike Atherton, the No 3 and 6 batting positions need to be filled by England. The following youngsters deserve to be given a chance to establish themselves this summer, though in a balanced side only two out of three are likely to play in the opening Test at Edgbaston next week.

John Crawley (Lancs)

A cruel injury in the winter robbed him of his chance to try to re-assert himself in the Test team. Has worked hard at both his game and his fitness. An intelligent cricketer, he needs to be more phlegmatic about failure and, if he wants the No 3 slot, tighten up outside his off- stump.

Nasser Hussain (Essex)

A taste of authority has been the making of him. Vice-captain at Essex and captain of England A's recent tour of Pakistan have helped channel the restless energy and aggression that has proved a stumbling block in the past. Some still feel his off-side strokes - played with an open face - are flawed; others that he deserves another chance.

Ronnie Irani (Essex)

A powerful start to the season from this hard hitting strokeplayer, who also bowls more than useful seamers and swingers. His self-belief is his main strongpoint. Something that many believe will help to establish him at the highest level sooner rather than later.

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