Russell may be cast as the Illingworth sacrifice

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The Independent Online
What will Raymond Illingworth's final selection meeting for a home Test bring? An unchanged England side in the ascendant after a sparkling batting performance at Headingley? Or another one-off situation where the demands for victory need to be tailored for at the expense of longer-lasting fabric? These are the questions facing England's selectors and their chairman when they meet tonight to select England's squad for next week's final Test against Pakistan at The Oval.

Since Illingworth's appointment as chairman in 1994, England have not lost a home series, winning two - against New Zealand and India - while drawing against South Africa and the West Indies. Having stained his reputation, by being found guilty of bringing the game into disrepute, the dilemma is a poignant one. Illingworth may have lost some respect but, being a proud man, he will not want to lose his home record as well.

It is difficult to see where he and his fellow selectors can go to get the victory they crave. England may have hit upon the winning formula with the bat for the moment - the top six batting confidently as a unit, with left and right-handers dovetailing neatly to keep Pakistan's bowlers from settling - yet victory was never really threatened.

But if the batting blossomed and laid down some solid roots, the bowlers - given some typical English conditions to bowl in on the first morning - balked, bowling a hard-wicket length with a line that strayed too far to bother batsmen anticipating movement. By the time they had discovered the Headingley optimum (in the second innings), the pitch had flattened and the clock ticked harmlessly down for the draw. A result not often attributed to that mecca for English style, seam and swing.

However, in recent times the hard, bouncy Oval pitch has been every bit a banker for England as the seaming stodge traditionally served at Yorkshire's HQ. Given its position in the calendar, late August - a time when all players are usually claiming fatigue - England's record at The Oval is impressive. Since 1988, when an inexperienced side lost there to the West Indies, England have been beaten just once. Ominously, it was by Pakistan, their reverse swing blowing away England's batting. On that occasion, England went in with five front-line bowlers, one more than brought success against Australia and South Africa, the latter without a spinner.

Unless Jack Russell is left out, it is that four-pronged pace attack that Michael Atherton will probably push for again despite Ian Salisbury's wickets for the TCCB XI against South Africa 'A' at Chester-le-Street. Salisbury is a bowler best used for attack over short spells rather than as a stock bowler - a situation that will demand 30 tidy overs a day to constipate batsmen rather than give them runs.

It is a role better suited to Phil Tufnell and Peter Such, though neither curries much favour with Illingworth. Not that the pace bowlers have been especially frugal. Chris Lewis, in particular, lacked direction at Headingley, a failing Surrey fans saw last week during their side's defeat by Essex in the semi-final of the NatWest Trophy. With Andy Caddick nursing a back strain, Lewis may well be retained. Either way, Darren Gough looks certain to be the man springing out of the hat to join Dominic Cork and Alan Mullally - Devon Malcolm presumably being overlooked on the purely cricketing criterion of taking two recent 10-wicket hauls with an unchanged action.

An all-rounder, probably Mark Ealham, will no doubt be included in the squad, too, though it will be difficult to see him playing, particularly in front of a batsman. Unless, of course, there is a return to that old Illingworth chestnut of playing Alec Stewart behind the stumps. Last time around, it was a move the other selectors persuaded Illingworth to resist. But with England's and his own home record in jeopardy, Russell is the sacrifice the departing chairman may demand.

My squad: M Atherton (capt), A Stewart (to open and keep), N Hussain, G Thorpe, J Crawley, N Knight, D Cork, A Caddick, D Gough, A Mullally, C Lewis, M Ealham, P Such.