Selectors set to sacrifice Russell again

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The Independent Online
After a week where English cricket past and present suffered resounding defeats at the hands of Pakistan, familiar alarm bells are beginning to sound. But if Ian Botham is considering an appeal - crying foul over his opponent's tactics in the High Court - England's selectors, in a cry for help, are once more set to repeal the specialist wicketkeeper's role and hand the gloves back to Alec Stewart for next week's Headingley Test.

Of course, both are the knee-jerk reactions of unexpected defeat: England's coming after a wicketless last morning at Lord's when a draw looked likely; Botham's on the back of an unexpected verdict from the jury. However, given time spent in sensible surroundings each ought to be scotched and neither is worth the ridicule further humiliation would bring.

And yet from the selectors' point of view, the temptation will be overwhelming. Trying to overcome an early setback in a three-Test series often requires far greater risk-taking and sacrifice, and Russell, ever the philosophical team man, has probably already steeled himself against being dropped.

However, apart from the unfair treatment towards Russell, who scored his second Test century a month ago against India at Lord's, reverting the keeper's role to one of batting all-rounder is a futile one. In the 16 Tests where he has kept wicket, Stewart averages just 25 as opposed to 45.5 he averages when playing solely as a batsman.

As a team England have fared even less well with Stewart behind the stumps, having won just four of the 16 matches.

True, the logic of strengthening the batting against such a penetrative attack may be sound one, but once the ball starts to swing late and fast, one more middle-order batsman is not going to make a whole lot of difference.

If England really want to combat the mid-innings dangers posed by Waqar and Wasim, they must persuade the Headingley groundsman to produce a soft well-grassed pitch with lush surrounds. Only then will the wearing process crucial to achieving reverse swing be slowed long enough for England's middle-order to play themselves in.

With Graeme Hick having surely played his last Test of the summer, and Mark Ealham batting two places too high, England need to construct a new middle-order. Few already in the side will be volunteering and should Nasser Hussain prove his fitness, even he will not be guaranteed of slotting straight back into the No 3 spot, which Alec Stewart filled so gallantly at Lord's. Instead, if fit, Hussain may be asked to bat at five, with either John Crawley or Matthew Maynard being strongly considered to bat at six.

Fitness doubts also surround Chris Lewis, badly missed last week. At Lord's, England's bowling struggled to push Pakistan on to the back foot and even if Lewis comes through unscathed, the respective cases for Darren Gough, Andy Caddick and Dean Headley are all likely to get an airing.

If they do, Simon Brown is likely to be dropped, and therefore destined to join the increasingly less elite band of England's one-cap wonders. Picked to swing the ball conventionally, which he did not do (the Reader balls used tend not to swing when new), he struggled generally, bowling too many loose balls.

It is a problem that once kept Sussex's leg-spinner Ian Salisbury from having an extended run in the England side. But if he has reclaimed his place by cutting down on his profligacy, the trade-off has been to cut down on the amount of spin, a dangerous thing even if you are a spinner who can bat as Salisbury can.

There is a rumour that each of England's selectors are turning up in Leicester tonight, with their selections already written down without prior collusion. As ever, it will be interesting whose views prevail.

POSSIBLE SQUAD: Atherton, Knight, Hussain, Thorpe, Stewart, Crawley, Ealham, Russell, Lewis, Cork, Mullally, Gough, Salisbury.

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