Gooch may step into breach

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THE half-term break is over and instead of feeling rejuvenated, England find themselves unsettled, distracted and with a mountain to climb if they are to salvage this series. In fact so confused have the issues become that last night's selection meeting for the Fourth Test at Old Trafford starting on Thursday may well have required extra oxygen just to sort out the first two in the batting order.

The facts make stark reading. England are 2-1 down in the six-match series and although the deficit is not unusual, or indeed irredeemable, the ill-conceived stop-gap of making Alec Stewart keep wicket has finally backfired, throwing the precarious balance of the team into disarray following his withdrawal with a broken finger. Absent, too, is Jason Gallian, another opener with a cracked bone, who despite playing in last week's Benson & Hedges final, will not be asked to do the same against the West Indies.

That leaves Atherton, himself out of touch, without an opening partner; and unless the selectors feel able to continue feeding their habit of playing batsmen out of place, candidates that are willing, fit and able are thinner on the ground than the hair on Graham Gooch's head, a fact that should cause him to shed a bit more once it becomes obvious he is the leading contender.

Gooch, though officially retired from Test cricket, has already made overtones this season about his availability, should England need him. He has nearly a thousand first-class runs and would offer the selectors a sensible short-term option (one Test if Stewart recovers) with few strings attached.

It makes sense from a cricketing point of view as well. The Essex opener has always preferred the ball to be banged in short at him, where his reticence at moving his front foot isn't so exposed. It is no coincidence that five of his 20 Test centuries have been scored off West Indian pace. The Old Trafford pitch usually has plenty of bounce and nobody has better coped with the relentless West Indian barrage of chest-high deliveries over the past 15 years.

Other fit contenders are the Warwickshire left-hander Nick Knight, who despite a healthy average has yet to register a first-class hundred this season, andPeter Bowler, whose move to Somerset has provided a crucial meeting place for renewed form and desire, a congruence perfectly demonstrated by last Friday's 195 against Essex at Southend.

Jack Russell could also benefit from recent experience with the bat. His 83 for Gloucestershire, made in front of the England captain, should help see him take the wicketkeeping gloves in front of Steve Rhodes and Paul Nixon, though resumed contact with the likes of Bishop, Ambrose and Walsh will do little to curb his already pronounced eccentricities, which include a daily lunch of soggy Weetabix, soaked in milk for exactly 12 minutes.

Fittingly, at least for an Old Trafford Test, diehard Lancashire supporters should see another son of the soil, Mike Watkinson, make his debut. Watkinson has bowled his off-spinners effectively all season, but he needs the ball to turn to be effective (this has been promised).

Red rose celebration, too, for John Crawley's long overdue reappearance in the middle order. Before the gravity of Stewart's injury came to light, some were calling for Crawley to replace Graeme Hick. This is harsh on Hick who contributed much to England's victory at Lord's. Although a supremely gifted player, who has worked hard at his game, Hick still seems too compliant when the chips are down, and he struggles to occupy the crease when he is not scoring. After 35 Tests, he still struggles to cope with the ball that rears at chest or throat and he knows that the doubters will remain until he plays a commanding first innings against this opposition.

To the names of Fraser, Gough and Cork, in the seam department, should be added that of Devon Malcolm, presumably fired up after the recent brouhaha over his and other foreign-born players' commitment to England's cause. Australian players find it incomprehensible that Malcolm is ever excluded from the England side, and though occasionally expensive, he does offer a pacier alternative.

If the pitch is going to turn early, then either Malcolm or Fraser will miss out. But, as we saw at Edgbaston, bare ends do not necessarily mean spin, especially if the game barely extends into the third day.

My 13 would be: Atherton, Gooch, Hick, Thorpe, Smith, Crawley, Russell, Cork, Watkinson, Gough, Fraser, Malcolm, Illingworth.