Mullally awaits verdict on pitch

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The Independent Online
First Tests are normally vital in deciding the outcome of a series, particularly in a three-match rubber, where scope for manoeuvre and regrouping is limited. It is curious then, that England have chosen to play this first Test here, the scene of their fastest defeat since the war. Their loss here to the West Indies last year took less than seven sessions.

However, the decision has also left England in a quandary over their bowling attack for today's first Test against India. So far, the deliberate decision to let players know their role as soon as possible has been laudable. That none of the three potential debutants will know their fate until later this morning is therefore out of character and seems to suggest that the pitch has not quite lived up to its pre-match billing.

A few days ago, reports of a well-grassed surface prompted talk of an all-seam attack. Yesterday, that had all changed and spin was the word on everyone's lips - including those of the England captain - after a closer inspection revealed a well-cracked pitch, which will produce the sort of uneven bounce which might explain why Warwickshire have won the Championship more often recently than, say, Lancashire.

If Min Patel, Kent's Bombay-born left-arm spinner, does make his debut - and he now looks certain to do so - Ronnie Irani, at the expense of John Crawley, is almost bound to join him and will bat at six. It is a tactic the England captain confirmed yesterday, though it was not fully endorsed by his coach, David Lloyd.

More difficult altogether will be the choice of third seamer between Peter Martin and Alan Mullally. That decision is unlikely to be made until this morning when the selectors have had another chance to assess the pitch.

They may also, given India's two spinners, consider Mullally's propensity to run on the pitch. With his first follow-through stride landing about seven feet down around off stump, he not only risks censure from the umpires - which can lead to a ban from bowling for the rest of the innings - but he will also be creating a custom-made dustbowl for Anil Kumble, India's match-winning spinner, to exploit.

Mind you, it seems strange that after Raymond Illingworth's talk of wanting someone with pace that Mullally could miss out. When Martin has rhythm and is swinging the ball, he is the ideal bowler to trouble Indian batsmen, who are used to taking liberties like playing across the line. On the other hand, this is likely to be the quickest pitch that England will play India on this summer, and Mullally, having put on at least a yard of pace after a winter of intensive training, ought to be given his head.

Atherton, who watched the first ball of last year's Test from Curtly Ambrose whistle clean over his and the wicketkeeper's head, would not be drawn on the current pitch, which has been cut several strips away from last year's lethal surface.

"It looks reasonable to me," he quipped yesterday. "Though people have been staring at it like it's an ancient relic or something. It's there. We've got to play on it. So there's no point in getting yourself worried about it."

Apart from his own lack of form, Atherton, after the comprehensive victory in the one-day series, has far less to worry about than his opposite number, whose popularity back home has reportedly plummeted in the wake of Navjot Sidhu's sudden and acrimonious retirement.

It is a big Test for both captains, and depending on the result, one that could begin to bring further judgement on both their futures as leaders.

"I never let these things affect me," said Azharuddin, whose batting touch in recent games is once again approaching its sublime best. "I'm not hassled. It's just that we didn't play well in the Texaco series. Anyway we are looking forward to the Tests. They are very important to us as we don't play many. But we need to apply our mind if we are to play well."

That could prove difficult especially after a two-year diet of one-day cricket where techniques and concentration can fall foul of bad habits. That said, India still possess a formidable middle-order with Sanjay Manjrekar, Tendulkar and Azharuddin likely to prove the biggest obstacle to an England victory.

India have only ever won three Tests in England and although none were at Edgbaston, England's batsmen cannot afford to be complacent. As a pair of new ball bowlers, Javagal Srinath and Venkatesh Prasad have greatly impressed and, despite finishing on the losing side after the one-dayers, outbowled their England counterparts.

Hot weather is forecast, which will suit India who did not look entirely at ease in the bitingly cold May. It will also help dry the pitch and India's spinners Kumble and Suresh Joshi - the latter an all-rounder who will probably bat at six - should enjoy that, as no doubt will those who bought tickets for Edgbaston's lost weekend last year.

ENGLAND (v India, First Test, Edgbaston, today) From: M A Atherton (capt), N V Knight, N Hussain, G P Thorpe, G A Hick, J P Crawley, R C Irani, C C Lewis, R C Russell (wkt), D G Cork, M M Patel, P J Martin, A D Mullally.

INDIA From: V Rathore, A D Jadeja, S V Manjrekar, S R Tendulkar, M Azharuddin (capt), S Joshi, N R Mongia (wkt), J Srinath, A Kumble, B K V Prasad, R Mhambrey, R Dravid.

Umpires: D R Shepherd (Eng), D B Hair (Aus). TV replay umpire: A A Jones.