Selectors must raise their glasses to new attitude

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The Independent Online
BY MARTIN JOHNSON

Cricket Correspondent

Before England's cricket selectors reconvene over dinner this evening, they should raise a glass to the successful conclusion of the first part of this summer's business, and then allow themselves a refill for every major home Test series they have won over the past 10 years. That way at least, they are guaranteed to be stone-cold sober when they pick the team for next week's opening Test at Headingley.

Not since the Ashes series of 1985 have England prevailed in a single- tourist summer, and their comparative success in the one-day stuff is a reminder, if any were needed, that Test cricket does not offer the same rewards for a side which yo-yos between highly proficient to mind- bogglingly hopeless over the course of five consecutive days.

England enjoy any number of good days at the office, but just when a tricky business deal demands their full attention, they mostly respond by hanging a "gone to lunch" notice on the doorknob. Even the Test match they won last winter required one brilliant day to rub out four mediocre ones.

To this end, they need to identify not only their most talented players, but those who have the mental stamina for the highly attritional nature of modern-day Test cricket. Winning the Texaco was all very nice, but now they have to address themselves to slightly more intricate matters - such as bowling at the stumps, and allowing the wicketkeeper to converse with his fielders out of the side of his mouth rather than through a loud hailer.

Talking about the wicketkeeper will, in fact, constitute almost all of tonight's conversation. If, for example, the selectors cannot convince themselves that they have a No 6 who could hold down a place either as a batsman or a bowler, then the discussion will turn, as it so often does, to asking Alec Stewart to reacquaint himself with the gauntlets.

The case against (quite apart from the fact that Stewart would have to be anaesthetised before they could strap the gloves on to him) is that his Test match average purely as a batsman (32 Tests, 2,415 runs at 45.56) is way above what it is as a wicketkeeping all-rounder (13 Tests, 640 runs at 27.82) while the case for is that it would be the simplest way of accommodating Raymond Illingworth's preference for five specialist bowlers.

If Craig White had been taking wickets, it would be a case of problem solved, but as it is, the selectors are forced into discussing wicketkeepers for the all-rounder's spot. One name they have been considering is Keith Brown of Middlesex, which says a lot for the modern concept of any old stumper will do as long as he gets a few runs.

If the England selectors had been in charge of the Sistine Chapel contract, Michelangelo would have been turned down on the grounds that his CV did not include much experience of painting skirting boards.

In the end, they will probably settle for doing without the fifth bowler, and retaining Steven Rhodes behind the stumps. Illingworth said recently that he thought Rhodes had kept "pretty well" in Australia last winter, which, if nothing else, rather disproves the theory that Raymond is a hard man to please.

If indeed England end up with only four specialist bowlers (almost guaranteeing that one of them breaks down during the game) it would prompt the usual debate before a Headingley Test match involving whether or not to play a spinner. Before they were identified by having their names plastered all over their sponsored cars, you could always tell which vehicle in the Headingley car park belonged to the slow bowler. It was the one pointed towards the exit gate with the engine still running.

However, whether or not a spinner ends up in the final XI, the slow-bowling debate will doubtless revolve around the two left-armers, Philip Tufnell and Richard Stemp. All things being equal, Tufnell would probably shade it, but all things are not equal. When Michael Atherton concluded his winter post-mortem with the observation that not everyone had been pulling in the same direction, he did not name names, but neither did it require any Poirot-like sleuthing to deduce at least one of those he was referring to.

As for the seamers, Devon Malcolm, Darren Gough and Angus Fraser more or less pick themselves, and on a swing bowlers' ground such as Headingley, Peter Martin's ability to move the ball away from the right-handers should be one of those rare occasions when a Texaco Trophy performance is regarded as admissable evidence for the opening Test match.

ENGLAND (probable 13): M A Atherton (capt), A J Stewart, G A Hick, G P Thorpe, M R Ramprakash, J P Crawley, S J Rhodes (wkt), P A J DeFreitas, D Gough, A R C Fraser, D E Malcolm, P J Martin, R D Stemp.

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