Selectors set Symonds a loyalty test

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The Independent Online

Cricket Correspondent

Sometime during a future Ashes series, when all Test matches are preceded by national anthems, the opposition will clear their throats and launch into a spirited rendition of "Advance Australia Fair". Then the band will strike up for England, and the lads will break into a chest-swelling, tearduct-emptying chorus of, er, "Advance Australia Fair".

It is not often that the selection of England's winter tour parties raises more eyebrows over the A team than the senior squad, but while the inclusion of the uncapped Middlesex seamer Richard Johnson for the trip to South Africa represents a mild surprise, Andrew Symonds' presence in the 15- man A team party to Pakistan is a clear case of fair dinkum, mate, you could have knocked me down with a corked hat.

The 21-year-old Gloucestershire batsman, who was last week named Young Cricketer of the Year, joins Jason Gallian and Craig White as one of three Australian Cricket Academy graduates in the A squad, and will be viewed by many as further evidence that the criterion for being English will eventually be to be born within the sound of Sydney Opera House.

Welsh football managers have already altered the equation from Land of My Fathers to "the land of my second cousin (twice removed) will do for me, boyo", and England cricket selectors are becoming equally oblivious to national identity. There may yet be, though, a twist to this particular tale.

The Birmingham-born Symonds has twice stated a preference for Australia, first after making a century against England for the state of his upbringing, Queensland, last winter, and again this summer. He has yet to RSVP to England's invitation, and, having yesterday been described by his Gloucestershire secretary as "thoroughly confused", may yet decline.

In making his decision, Symonds has to balance personal and professional considerations. "I have spoken to a lot of people, but there are still more people to speak to. I need time to think," he said.

"If I decide my future lies with England, it will mean leaving my family, my girlfriend and my friends in Australia. But I have got to decide where best I can earn my living as a professional cricketer."

Symonds represented Australia's Under-19 side on their tour to India in March, 1994, but the International Cricket Council regulation regarding junior representation as a marriage to that particular country only applies to those who have played since October 1994.

Up until an hour or so before the selectors met on Monday, the Test and County Cricket Board still thought Symonds was ineligible. However, they then brought the October clause to the attention of the ICC's chief executive, David Richards, who agreed that Symonds was, after all, available to be picked by England. Two hours later, he was.

Johnson's inclusion in the senior squad was justified by Raymond Illingworth's contention that "he hits the deck hard, and we felt he would be useful in South African conditions." Hopefully, this will turn out to be a slightly more prescient observation than the one which accompanied Illy's surprise bowling pick last year, when Martin McCague was touted as "ideally suited for Australia's hard, bouncy pitches".

However, Johnson is nothing if not an imaginative pick, not least because he represents a departure from tradition. England pace bowlers normally break down after they are picked, rather than beforehand, but this time the selectors have cannily decided to get in first.

Illingworth also offered further evidence that selection meetings do not, as some still erroneously believe, consist of Raymond and three nodding dogs. The chairman went into the three and a half hour meeting firmly convinced that another opener was required along with Michael Atherton and Alec Stewart, and yet none was selected.

Nick Knight and Jason Gallian instead go with the A tour, which in turn obviated the need to make a straight choice between John Crawley and Mark Ramprakash, and the the two spin bowler vacancies have been filled by Richard Illingworth and Mike Watkinson. Philip Tufnell is not going primarily because the TCCB, having decided to take a doctor with them this winter, did not feel they could afford a child minder as well.

However, while England have now decided that Tufnell is beyond rehabilitation, another player once regarded an enfant terrible has not only been allowed out again without supervision, but also been offered the chance to prove that he is potential officer material.

In choosing Nasser Hussain as captain for the A tour, the selectors have tried the old trick of offering the gamekeeper's job to the poacher.

England have decided to postpone the announcement of their 14-man World Cup squad, but the specialist nature of the competition is mirrored by retaining three players - Neil Fairbrother, Dermot Reeve, and Neil Smith - on winter contracts.