Safety first for England

Derek Pringle says Illingworth must change direction if the corner is to be turned; Second Test: Batsmen must curb their recklessness if the domination of the West Indians is to be threatened at Lord's
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The Independent Online
TRUE to form, England's selectors have again got themselves into a right old pickle. With a series of ill-conceived selections and strategies in a bid not to lose the First Test, Raymond Illingworth and his men have reversed into a corner. It is an uncomfortable position, but one that should at least persuade even an obstinate Yorkshireman to eat some humble pie and start again as England, one down, look towards winning the Second Test which begins at Lord's on Thursday.

There is no doubt that dithering and making U-turns can weaken resolve and confuse everyone concerned - a situation the present selectors will have recognised from the ministrations of their predecessors and, some might say, that of the present Government - but while it might be tempting to point out that the selections for Headingley did have a basic logic to them, they were doomed from the outset, having been based on distinctly shaky premises.

Change, despite Michael Atherton's stated desire to resist it, can therefore be justified, although the surgery is more likely to feature a bit of nip and tuck than a serious operation, a rethink rather than a complete overhaul. Mind you, it is uncertain that England could adopt the latter route in any case. Prospective candidates for Test duty are not exactly queueing at the door and, when distilled, the dilemma at Headingley over Alec Stewart's role presumably arose because the selectors felt that our unwieldy system of 18 first-class counties couldn't provide the kind of team they wanted in the first place, five batsmen, four bowlers, a specialist wicketkeeper and an all-rounder.

Clearly, England are confused and their way out of this strategic maze was not helped when the chairman evenly heaped the blame for defeat on both batsmen and bowlers. If that comment was down to a rare bout of diplomacy on Illingworth's part, fair enough, but if he really believed that, England are not likely to address the changes necessary to prevent England's wretched record at HQ from continuing.

For a start, England's batsmen need to make at least 300 in their first innings if the bowlers are to have any chance of manoeuvring the side into a winning position. Since the World Cup final in 1992 - the last time England could be said to have been on an upswing, having just beaten New Zealand abroad and drawn a home series against the West Indies - they have managed to pass 300 in their first innings on only 17 occasions in 30 Tests.

It is a poor record that shows where England's long-term failures lay, despite perceived shortcomings over bowlers and Illingworth's insistence that five of them must play. On those occasions when 300 or more have been scored in the first innings, only four Tests were lost, and one of those was the debacle in Trinidad, where England were blown away for 46 in their second innings. Interestingly, none has been lost at home, suggesting that if the batsmen perform and pressure is able to be exerted, the bowling, at least on English pitches, is liable to take care of itself.

In a bid to keep faith with those chosen last time, Stewart must return to open the innings with Atherton, while Robin Smith, more confident after a recent hundred for Hampshire, drops to five or six, and Steve Rhodes should come in to keep wicket and bat at seven. The rest of the batting ought to remain unchanged save for a less reckless approach.

Having watched the First Test on television, the Australian batsman Mark Waugh thought that England were too keen to play attacking shots, strokes that were perhaps not within every batsman's range. "You have to play within your limitations," he said last week. "It's easy to say you need to play hooks and cuts against these fellows to get runs, but it's tough unless you spend time at the crease getting used to their extra pace and bounce.

"In our Test series, we had to duck an awful lot of bouncers, but patience paid dividends in the end. In fact, once you do get set, it gets easier as they don't have much variation and that allows you to settle into a rhythm. But early on, shot selection is really important, especially now Ian Bishop allows them to apply a bit more pressure."

Waugh said that Australia's bowling tactics were even simpler. "We just decided to bowl line and length outside off-stump in a bid to stop them scoring boundaries. I can't remember Paul Reiffel bowling a bouncer, though Glenn McGrath let their tail know he was around."

What is particularly embarrassing is that every English county should have at least one Reiffel on their books, and at least half of them should possess a bowler like McGrath, a wiry seamer who resembles Neil Foster before knee injuries took their toll on the Essex paceman. That they don't should not detract from the need to play accurate bowlers who have the ability to move the ball around when conditions allow.

Selecting five bowlers is a luxury, especially when both Darren Gough and Devon Malcolm play on slow surfaces not conducive to their brand of bowling, relying as it does on adrenalin rushes and brute strength. Brian Lara in particular was so dismissive that Atherton may as well have gone in with three bowlers for he dared not bowl two of them.

If Peter Martin remains unfit, then either Mark Ilott or Dominic Cork, both of whom recorded remarkable bowling figures against Northamptonshire recently, should be drafted into the squad. Both can swing the ball around and should do so at Lord's, which can become very humid should the weather decide to warm up. South Africa's spinner-less dominance here last summer means Illingworth should remain, with Graeme Hick, if required, fitting in at least 10 overs during the day.

However, recent pitches have had a tendency to crack up, becoming more uneven as the game goes on, a situation that will suit the metronomic Angus Fraser on his home ground, though not as much as it will Ambrose and Co.

Despite the lessons learned after Australia, England's familiar failings of inconsistency have returned and they once more face the prospect of coming from behind against opponents who, gaining in con- fidence, are rarely used to seeing anything in their rear-view mirrors once they get in front.

England's 13 should be: Atherton, Stewart, Hick, Thorpe, Smith, Ramprakash, Rhodes, DeFreitas, Gough, Illingworth, Fraser, Malcolm, Martin or Ilott.

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