Russell the fall guy in Illingworth's final plan

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The Independent Online
In their response to next week's "one-off" situation of having to actually win a Test, England's selectors, wielding the axe of necessity, have once more cast Jack Russell's head into the basket. The gauntlet of dual responsibility is handed to Alec Stewart to both open and keep wicket, perhaps to Glamorgan's Robert Croft, whose off-spinners have been brought in to cover the possibilities of a turning pitch.

Russell, who can at least console himself with the assurance of a place on both winter tours, does not deserve to be dropped, and is clearly a victim of compromise between Atherton and Illingworth - the England captain wanting to keep his top six from Headingley intact while Illingworth, picking his last Test team, insisting that five bowlers are needed to try and bowl Pakistan out twice. With two unbending wills at work it was - not for the first time - the wicket-keeper's place that gave.

For once, however, it may not be the disaster waiting to happen. Stewart has carried both roles before, most notably against the West Indies at Lord's last year, where Illingworth sent the scheduled keeper Steve Rhodes packing the day before the match. Although Stewart's batting has been drastically compromised when he has been forced to wear the gloves - he averages 47.4 without and 25.1 with - The Oval, with its good carry and bounce, should not unduly weary him.

If reassurance is needed, Stewart, at 33, is seven years older than Nayan Mongia, India's wicketkeeper/opener who performed the same role earlier in the summer, and far more accomplished. And in the event of England spending more than four sessions in the field, Nick Knight can always revert back to his old role and join Atherton at the head of the order.

However, if the strategy involving Stewart has been hanging over England for the last two Tests, Croft's inclusion, especially alongside Ian Salisbury, comes as a surprise. Not perhaps to those who have followed his career with Glamorgan and England A, but to those who consider it at variance with the perceived wisdom of Oval pitches. Since Phil Tufnell's six-wicket demolition of the West Indies in 1991, The Oval's benevolence toward spin has been restricted to just a single wicket.

Described by Illingworth as "an old fashioned off-spinner with a good action", Croft has taken 57 first-class wickets this season. With as many as five left-handers likely to be in Pakistan's line-up on Thursday, the selectors believe Croft's flighty deliveries may prove handy in tempting them to indiscretion against the ball turning across them.

He will - should he play - also relish the rough created outside the right-hander's off-stump left by Alan Mullally and Wasim Akram as they follow through, though Wasim will probably spend more time firing his left-arm rockets from around the wicket should the ball start to reverse- swing.

As it stands, and without visible recourse to the pitch, which can change in the twinkling of a lowered mower blade, the final bowling place will be between Croft and Chris Lewis, though the latter was perhaps fortunate to keep a resurgent Darren Gough out of the 12. Once again, as has so often happened in his frustrating stop-start career, Lewis appears to be running out of either heart or steam, or both. He followed an insipid performance at Headingley with an erratic one for Surrey in their NatWest semi-final against Essex. Even so, he ought to be granted a reprieve on his latest home ground, for without a hosepipe ban being imposed, it is difficult to see a way in for both spinners.

If there is, then the two Mushtaqs, Ahmed and Saqlain, as superior bowlers, will surely rule the roost. If that happens, England look certain to lose their first home series since the Australians last left their calling card three years ago.

ENGLAND SQUAD TEST AVERAGES

BATTING M I No Runs HS Ave 100 50 Ct St

M A Atherton (Lancs) 61 112 3 4553 185* 41.77 10 29 44 0

G P Thorpe (Surrey) 31 57 5 2131 123 40.98 2 17 29 0

N Hussain (Essex) 11 19 3 650 128 40.62 2 1 6 0

A J Stewart (Surrey) 57 101 6 3837 190 40.38 8 19 69 4

N V Knight (Essex) 5 9 0 295 113 32.77 1 2 9 0

J P Crawley (Lancs) 11 17 1 383 72 23.93 0 4 10 0

C C Lewis (Surrey) 31 49 3 1096 117 23.82 1 4 25 0

D G Cork (Derbys) 15 21 3 335 56* 18.61 0 1 6 0

I D K Salisbury (Sussex) 8 15 1 250 50 17.85 0 1 3 0

A R Caddick (Somerset) 9 15 2 174 29* 13.38 0 0 4 0

A D Mullally (Leics) 5 7 4 30 14* 10.00 0 0 0 0

R D B Croft (Glamorgan) has not played Test cricket

BOWLING Overs M Runs Wkts Ave 5W 10W BB

D G Cork 599.2 122 1863 66 28.22 3 0 7-43

A D Mullally 239.2 69 554 18 30.77 0 0 3-44

C C Lewis 1119 217 3378 93 36.32 3 0 6-11

A R Caddick 380.4 68 1198 29 41.31 2 0 6-65

I D K Salisbury 266.3 29 1038 17 61.05 0 0 4-16

M A Atherton 68 12 302 2 151.00 0 0 1-20

A J Stewart 3.2 0 13 0 - 0 0 -

G P Thorpe 22 6 37 0 - 0 0 -

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