Illingworth clears out the dead wood

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The axe may be poised above the chairman of selectors' head, but that has not stopped him using it against those he feels are either past their best, or not quite performing to it. In one mighty blow Raymond Illingworth and his panel have cleaved away the tired and ageing parts of the England team and replaced them with fresher minds and legs more suited to the rebuilding that must take place if the Ashes are to return to these shores.

Gone from the squad for the first Test against India at Edgbaston on Thursday are Alec Stewart, Robin Smith, Angus Fraser and Darren Gough, with over 150 caps between them. In come the uncapped Alan Mullallly, Ronnie Irani and Min Patel - new blood in a team that has long been overdue a transfusion.

Three more players, Nasser Hussain, Chris Lewis and Nick Knight, are recalled to the 13-man squad which meets on Tuesday. Unsurprisingly after a dismal winter, only seven of the 16 who toured South Africa remain.

It had long ceased to be a secret - even before the serialisation of that book - that Illingworth wanted to make such wholesale changes. According to the chairman, however, Atherton's closeness to his players has been the major stumbling block, making whatever changes were made piecemeal and ineffectual.

That, however, is not a charge that can be fairly levelled any longer. Fed up with his team losing and being ridiculed for their doing so, Atherton has become increasingly desperate for regular success.

Over the last year, and certainly since the one-day debacle in South Africa, he has acquired a truculence that has made him far more dispassionate over selection; though just how dispassionate will most likely be made clear when the updated paperback version of Illingworth's book comes out in a year's time.

No doubt those aggrieved by this latest selection will have their say - if only unofficially - when the newcomers falter, as inevitably they will in coming to terms with a game that is at once tougher and more fragile than the one they are stepping up from. Moreover, of the three potential new caps, only Alan Mullally is certain to play, so broad claims about bold new beginnings should remain firmly muted for the time being.

Instead, the focus will be on the likes of Lewis, John Crawley, Knight and Hussain. Each is a marvellous talent, and each has been recalled in the hope that some vital component that will take them forward from the limbo land between domestic and international stage has finally dropped into place.

Illingworth confirmed that feeling about Hussain, at least. "Nasser has been very positive," he said. "He desperately wants it now and he has definitely settled down as a person." The last is a reference to the tantrums which blighted both his and Mark Ramprakash's early careers.

In truth, the furnace within has cooled, and Hussain will probably bat at six, leaving the problem position at three to revert back to John Crawley, whose pulled hamstring in Durban meant he vacated it without ever taking guard. It is right, therefore, that the selectors should show faith in Crawley, who looks certain to play, with England's late middle-order, as ever, being shaped by the balance of the bowling attack.

So far, the idle talk suggests that it is likely to be spin free, advance reports of the Edgbaston pitch indicating a hard, well- grassed surface to suit the seamers. If it stays that way, England will probably play all four, which will mean a return to county duty for Patel and Irani.

Normally, such lack of variety would be considered risky, but if India's batsmen do have a weakness, it is against medium-fast bowlers who can swing or cut the ball about. In Mullally's case, it is his extra pace and bounce that has won him favour over close rivals such as Mark Ilott and Darren Gough, despite coupling an Essex birthplace with an Australian upbringing.

"Alan's very English. He's always made that very clear." Illingworth said. "We've watched Alan a lot in the past and he's been close before. Mark Ilott hasn't let us down, but in the end we were looking for a bit more pace."

All that remains is for Knight to pass a fitness test on his cracked finger - Stewart is on standby should he fail. The opening position is probably the most important as both Javagal Srinath and Venkatesh Prasad are quick enough to exploit any weakness. In fact, on the evidence so far, it is their new-ball partnership and not Anil Kumble's leg breaks which will pose the greatest threat.


For the first Cornhill Test against India, starting at at Edgbaston on Thursday

M A Atherton (Lancashire, capt) age 28, Tests 56

N V Knight (Warwickshire) 26, 2

J P Crawley (Lancashire) 24, 10

G P Thorpe (Surrey) 26, 26

G A Hick (Worcs) 30, 42

N Hussain (Essex) 28, 7

R C Irani (Essex) 24, 0

R C Russell (Gloucs, wkt) 32, 44

C C Lewis (Surrey) 28, 27

D G Cork (Derbyshire) 24, 10

P J Martin (Lancashire) 27, 6

A D Mullally (Leics) 26, 0

M M Patel (Kent) 25, 0