Irani can be the new action man

Derek Pringle discusses the options facing the selectors for this week's Fifth Test
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The Independent Online
WHO says there is no drama left in modern sport? By winning at Old Trafford, England now go to Trent Bridge for Thursday's crucial Fifth Test with the series beautifullypoised at two games apiece, with two to play. Even the marketing men from Disneyland might have struggled to engineer quite that degree of symmetrical drama, though not Ray Illingworth who, apart from laying on the best series since 1981, will claim something of a personal triumph.

At the outset of his involvement with England, Illingworth stated that he wanted to get back to winning matches with a balanced side containing two spinners. Now he's done that . . . well, almost. England wins are rare enough to justify a good nitpick, but you can't help feeling that admirably though England played at Old Trafford, there were one or two bizarre selections and that any balancing on the part of the selectors was more to do with the players' ages than their roles.

In particular the choice of John Emburey (a second off-spinner) and Craig White seemed particularly unwieldy, the selectors' gambit only saved from embarrassing exposure by the heroic efforts of Dominic Cork, whose strike bowling was well supported by Angus Fraser and Mike Watkinson. It should be obvious to all but the most stuck-in-the-mud traditionalists that the qualities allowing a long consistent career in the county game rarely co-incide with those required to cut the mustard at the highest level.

Emburey didn't bowl badly - perish the thought. He just bowled steadily and predictably in a way that Watkinson, a recent convert to the spinner's art, couldn't have emulated even if he'd wanted. The wicket count was 5-0 to Watkinson, who should, for the sake of variety at least, find himself partnering someone who can turn the ball away from the right-hander. Richard Illingworth seems the logical choice, having done little wrong - before injury - except perhaps fail to catch Michael Atherton's eye when his captain has been casting about for someone to bowl.

White's selection was even more difficult to comprehend than Emburey's. Before Friday's century against Worcestershire, White had not exactly been surfing the form wave for Yorkshire with either bat or ball. His surprising selection for Old Trafford surely owed much to last year's fine all-round performance on the same ground, against New Zealand.

However, even then, his technique and confidence were found wanting once the South Africans arrived, and on the evidence of last week (11 costly overs and 24 runs) his premier deficiency of playing rising off-stump deliveries with a limp neutral bat remains unconquered.

If he is dropped, and England are casting about for a batsman all-rounder, then Ronnie Irani, who is having another fine season as the Essex batting order's resurrector-in-chief, could be the man. Irani is a cricketer Atherton knows well and by all accounts rates highly, despite his migration south, from Lancashire, two seasons ago.

If Irani was to play, that would leave just the batting spot vacated by Robin Smith to fill. Smith, forced out by a fractured cheekbone, could well miss the remainder of the summer, a fate that has since befallen Jimmy Adams after the Jamaican was hit in the face three days ago by Somerset's Andre van Troost. Neither was wearing a helmet grille, a precaution even Brian Lara adopts now that his face is as famous as his square cut.

Logically, Smith's removal and Alec Stewart's continuing absence should mean a recall for either Graeme Hick or Mark Ramprakash, though you get the feeling that neither is viewed with much confidence against this opposition. Anyone who protects himself before his wicket - as Hick regularly does against well-directed fast bowling - isn't likely to be highly regarded in the Illingworth school of hard knocks. And though this isn't Ramprakash's problem, the Middlesex batsman still betrays too much nervous body language to be the automatic choice his brilliant run of form would normally demand. Illingworth might be tempted to cast a glance towards Yorkshire for whom David Byas scored a timely double century at Scarborough.

If fully fit, Devon Malcolm should return. He is low on confidence and needs to be involved again just to feed off England's current euphoria. If the pitch turns as expected, he will almost certainly be carrying the drinks tray, but he must not lose heart. Even the West Indies may be forced to make changes and bring in their leg-spinner, Rajindra Dhanraj. If Dhanraj, who bats even lower than Courtney Walsh, plays, this series may twist and turn for a good while longer yet.

My 12: Atherton, Knight, Crawley, Thorpe, Hick, Irani, Russell, Watkinson, Cork, Illingworth, Fraser, Malcolm.