Smith could go as England wallow in mire

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The Independent Online
Cricket

MARTIN JOHNSON

Once again, England's brave new dawn has been ushered in by drawing back the curtains to find it pouring with rain, and tonight, for the sixth time in the last seven series, the team for the second Test match will be selected against the cloud-laden backcloth of a 0-1 scoreline.

"There is," Raymond Illingworth said in the immediate aftermath of Headingley, "a fine line between winning and losing." And when hard-nosed realists such as the England chairman can make this kind of statement after a nine-wicket towelling, it begins to make you wonder whether getting a draw at Lord's will be enough to spark off an orgy of street parties.

However, in the unlikely event that the selectors will conclude this evening that the team they picked for Headingley is totally useless, and that they are positively spoiled for alternatives, minor tinkering is a far more likely outcome than major surgery.

The two most obvious areas of scrutiny are whether Robin Smith should continue as Michael Atherton's opening partner, and whether Alec Stewart is as incapable of scoring runs and keeping wicket as his batting average as an all-rounder would appear to suggest.

Smith was by no means an outrageous punt at Headingley, given his known qualities against quick bowling, but his nervous temperament for once may have worked against him, after being so desperate to succeed after 11 months out of favour. His bread-and-butter shot, the cut, is now being plopped into the hands of cover point as opposed to threatening the back of cover point's head as it rebounds from the advertising hoardings, and this may be one of those rare occasions of a player's first chance also being his last.

However, the six batsman and five bowlers policy is a perfectly sound one, and there remains no logical reason why Stewart should not score as many runs batting down the order as going in first. Stewart, after all, started off as a middle-order player, and was once regarded as being out of position when he was asked to open.

What it might now boil down to is a mental block and, if that is the case, then it is clearly not a sound policy to bat him down the order. However, short of Stewart storming into the selectors' restaurant tonight and dumping the gloves into Illingworth's soup, the chairman will almost certainly press for him to continue.

If he does, given that Atherton is currently struggling with a back problem, he may conceivably end up with three jobs and take over the captaincy as well. However, on the assumption that Atherton is fit, the captain may well press for Stewart to be returned to the opener's position, and for England to go in with one bowler less than Illingworth wants.

Illingworth has pointed, not unreasonably, to Darren Gough's injury at Leeds as one of the hazards of going in with only four bowlers and, as the very sight of an England dressing room is enough to make a fast bowler start feeling twinges in his hamstrings, he might take some persuading before abandoning this principle.

Gough's side strain has apparently cleared up, but there is a more serious doubt about Peter Martin, whose thigh strain kept him out of Lancashire's Benson and Hedges semi-final on Tuesday. It says something for England's level of expectation nowadays that Martin, with figures of 2 for 90-odd in helpful conditions, was considered to be one of the Headingley successes, but Martin did generally acquit himself well, as did Richard Illingworth.

It is a fair indication of England's current disarray that of all five bowlers to take the field at Headingley, the only one absolutely certain to do so at Lord's is Illingworth.

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