Stewart stumped again by selectors

Second Test: Illingworth insists on reinstatement of England's opening batsman as wicketkeeper to face West Indies
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The curious notion that England have made a poor start to this Test series is, of course, a misapprehension formed only by those who have not yet worked out that Headingley was all part of a cunning strategy. Namely, given that England traditionally play their finest cricket only when faced with an irretrievable deficit, they should now be given the credit they deserve for getting off to a flier.

On top of which, those of us who have astutely placed serious money on England thrashing the West Indies at Trent Bridge in August to trim the scoreline to 1-4, can take further heart from today's venue for the second of this summer's six-Test series. There is scarcely a cricket ground left anywhere in the world where England have failed to roll over, but nowhere do they flop belly-up more consistently than here at Lord's.

When England last beat Australia here, their first-wicket pair was Cyril Walters and Herbert Sutcliffe. Fifty years after that, in 1984, England lost to the West Indies at Lord's to launch a sequence of such ineptitude that of the three Test matches they have since won at their own headquarters, two of them were against Sri Lanka.

Furthermore, high ranking English cricket folk have recently had a tendency towards strange behaviour under the gaze of Old Father Time. Last year, we had Michael Atherton presenting his trouser pockets for inspection, the year before that, Ted Dexter's cure for England's problems involved moving the planet Venus a touch further to the left, and in 1989, David Gower memorably cut short a press conference with a brusque: "That's it boys, I'm off to the theatre."

And now we have had the even more bizarre event of England agreeing on a certain selection strategy at their meeting on Saturday night, only for Raymond Illingworth to throw it straight back out of the window 24 hours before the game.

When the England chairman allowed his arm to be twisted over Alec Stewart's re-installment as a non-wicketkeeping opening batsman, it was such an astounding departure from character that you began to fear for the old boy's health.

However, Illingworth being the sort of bloke who suffers the same agonies of self doubt as Lady Thatcher, quickly came to his senses, consigned the majority decision to the shredder, and more or less ordered Stewart back behind the stumps.

It was, therefore, hardly surprising to see the captain yesterday attempting to explain this volte-face with a cross between a wry grin and the kind of expression associated with Frank Bruno shortly after being biffed on the chin.

"Raymond has always stated he believes in five bowlers," Atherton said loyally, albeit as though he was reading from a cue card. "We are one down and have to get back into the series." Well, you can't fault the captain's arithmetic, but it is also reasonable to assume that England had a vague idea they were one down at their original selection meeting.

Illingworth buttonholed Stewart on Tuesday afternoon and again yesterday morning, resulting in Stewart saying yesterday lunchtime: "You don't argue with Mr Illingworth." Stewart added: "He wants me to open, and I'm happy with that. He wants me to keep wicket, and [slight change of emphasis] I'll do that as well. I'll be looking forward to getting two salaries."

Illingworth, unusually reticent yesterday, merely said that there had been "no persuasion" involved either with Stewart personally, or his other selectors. The specialist wicketkeeper chosen in the 13, Steven Rhodes, thus became something of a spare part at yesterday's practice session, and confined his disappointment to: "The chairman thinks it best I don't say much to the press."

Stewart will definitely open if England bat first, but could find himself down the order again should he require time to unwind given the fierce mental and physical pressures involved in a long stint behind the stumps. In a nutshell, it is one hell of way - even by England's standards - to go into a Test match.

Say what you like about English cricket, but there is rarely a dull moment, and in no other environment could satirical magazines have such rich material to work with. The latest (and comfortably the wittiest) is The Googly, who have employed someone called Mystic Meg to predict the longer-term outcome of England's opening batting predicament. "I see," Meg says, "a young man with a gummy grin talking about the need for youth, but three matches later going out to bat with an old man from Essex sporting a daft moustache."

The odds against Graham Gooch being asked to come out of international retirement are roughly the same as Illingworth appointing himself captain before the end of the summer (i.e. worth a bet), but as far as Atherton is concerned, any thoughts of Gooch are liable to be confined to memories of his predecessor falling on his sword as results went from bad to worse.

Atherton, like Gooch before him, positively thrives when the chips are down and the pressure is at its greatest, but, again like Gooch, he presides over a team which collectively responds like a souffle to a opened oven door whenever those pivotal moments arrive. The captain's appointment is up for reassessment in two matches' time, and while plausible alternatives are thin on the ground, a sharp upturn in the team's performance is the only guarantee against the gangplank.

On the other hand, should the ship continue to head for the rocks, Illy has left his fingerprints indelibly on the tiller, and Atherton can scarcely expect to take the rap on his chairman's behalf after this latest episode. The other scenario, of course, is Stewart making a triple century, taking 18 catches and two stumpings, and Lord's reverberating to a Monday night balcony fanfare for Sir Raymond of Farsley.

Bishop's rebirth, page 26