Help from the aged

With England in trouble again, the search resumes for a cricketing hero. So what do the selectors do? What they always do. Send for a golden oldie. Derek Hodgson puts John Emburey's selection for today's Old Trafford Test into historical perspective
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The Independent Online
The England cricket selectors were in a quandary - how to stop a dismal run that had brought England one victory in 19 Test matches?

A familiar story, but this time the year was 1926. The Australians, even in a wet summer, threatened a rampage. Interventions by the weather, and heavy scoring, meant that four Tests had been drawn. The fifth, at The Oval, was to be played to a finish; there had to be a winner.

So desperate had the selectors, all amateurs, become, that they had co- opted the leading professional batsman of the day, Jack Hobbs, and the leading all-rounder, Wilfred Rhodes, to their meeting. They changed the captain, they changed the wicketkeeper and then, with rain about and a match to be played on an uncovered pitch, they needed a slow-left arm bowler.

They had asked Rhodes, who was about to complete his sixteenth double of 1,000 runs and 100 wickets during a season, to play earlier in the series. Rhodes, just short of his 49th birthday, had said they needed a younger man. This time he was persuaded, almost 31 years after he first played for England. Three of the team were not even born when Rhodes was first chosen.

Those same selectors also gave a first cap to a promising young fast bowler from Nottingham, Harold Larwood.

All fairy stories have a happy ending. With Australia needing 415 to win on a drying pitch Rhodes took 4 for 44 (6 for 79 in the match), England won the series and many years afterwards Rhodes gave his verdict. "That pitch was getting better all the time. They should have put me on sooner."

The story moves on to 1956. England were defending the Ashes but went to Leeds for the third Test 1-0 down. The batting would have to be reinforced. The selectors cast around and then turned to one of their own, Cyril Washbrook, 41, who had not played in Tests for five years but was still captaining Lancashire.

When his familiar stocky figure - chin jutting, cap raked - emerged from the old pavilion at Headingley on that first morning England were 17 for 3, Peter Richardson, Colin Cowdrey and Alan Oakman all victims of Ron Archer. Ray Lindwall was bowling at the other end.

Washbrook and Peter May stayed until 6.25 that evening, adding 187 in 287 minutes. May made 101 and Washbrook, on 98, was leg before to Richie Benaud the following morning. It was the turning point in one of the great Ashes series, and one won by England.

And then there was 1976. The West Indies, having just lost 5-1 in Australia, were touring. The first two matches were drawn and England had used three opening batsmen, John Edrich, Barry Wood and a newcomer, Mike Brearley. For the third match at Old Trafford the selectors decided to promote Brian Close, then 45 and a middle-order player all his life, to open with Edrich - two left-handers to cope with the speed and bounce of Andy Roberts, Michael Holding and the 20-year-old Wayne Daniel.

It was 27 years since Close had made his England debut at the age of 18 on the same ground. He had captained England and he had been a selector. In the first innings the experiment failed dismally - England were dismissed for 71, with only David Steele (20) reaching double figures. Steele himself had been the selectors' unlikely inspiration in times of trouble the year before when, at the ripe age of 33, he was called up for his first Test, at Lord's against Australia, and made 50.

With 80 minutes left of the third day's play at Old Trafford Edrich and Close appeared again, England needing 552 to win. The pair took a fearful pounding during what is now remembered as one of the most intimidatory spells of short-pitched bowling in the game's history.

Close, as ever, was wearing his fixed grin. After a furore of criticism the West Indies' trio pitched up the ball on Monday morning and 54 for 0 became 126 all out.

And now it is 1995. England are 2-1 down, and although accepting that the principal weakness has been the inability to raise enough runs in the first innings, they believe the West Indian batting order is fallible. How to increase the pressure?

This time they send for John Emburey who, although not a selector, has captained both Middlesex and England on occasions and at 42, with 22 years of first-class cricket behind him, is certainly qualified.

Emburey, like Rhodes, is a spinner of intelligence, cunning and skill. In 1982 he was banned from international cricket for three years for joining a South African "rebel" tour. He hoped, publicly, he might be forgiven; privately he felt he would never play for England again.

But in 1985 he swept back into the team, taking 19 wickets at an average of 28 against Australia and following that with another 14, at the age of 32, in West Indies. He was happily contemplating browsing in the green pastures of county cricket when the call came again this week. As the cricket historian, Richard Streeton, put it: "Emburey is unique in that in his case the selectors have dipped into the past not once but twice."

It is not too surprising. Emburey is still one of the world's best off- spinners; he is also a top-class slip and a batsman whose idiosyncratic style is appreciated by all but the bowlers he faces - by the audience for its entertainment value and by his team for the runs it brings.

Houseman, in a different context, saluted Rhodes, Washbrook, Close and Emburey.

"They carry back bright to the coiner the mintage of man,

"The lads that will die in their glory and never be old".