Stewart's absence leaves opening for Crawley

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England's selection committee have spent a worried 48 hours wondering how to replace the foundation of their entire Test match planning for this summer: Alec Stewart. The Surrey captain's confirmation on Wed-nesday that he did have a broken right index finger meant consideration would have to be given to a new wicketkeeper and another opening batsman for the fourth Test against West Indies beginning at Old Trafford next Thursday.

And all this follows the deep trauma inflicted by the defeat inside three days by a wobbly West Indies team at Edgbaston. Injuries in or since that match meant that three of the losers, Jason Gallian, Richard Illingworth and Peter Martin, had to be replaced anyway. Stewart's absence now means a complete reconstruction.

Atherton, Hick, Thorpe, Smith, Fraser, Gough and Cork seem certain to be reselected although Hick's time may be running out; his dismissals at Edgbaston have revived many doubts about his technique against a fast, short-pitched assault.

There are four places to be filled and the easiest decision ought to be that of replacement wicketkeeper. By what may be termed common consent Jack Russell is batting better than ever and has an edge over his main rivals with the gloves. The preference of the chairman, Ray Illingworth, for Steve Rhodes seems likely to be overcome by his fellow selectors' inclination for a man so clearly in form.

Mike Watkinson, left out at Birmingham, should make his debut on his home ground, a responsible batsman, a brisk medium pacer and an off- spinner who can make the ball rip. His selection would also give England the option of adding either another seamer (Devon Malcolm or Phil DeFreitas) or another spinner: take your pick. With Watkinson in the side the preference would be for either a slow left-armer or a leg spinner, i.e. Min Patel or Ian Salisbury. Phil Tufnell remains the best of his class but for him to be re-selected would require some Damascene conversions at the selectors' meeting tonight.

The principal discussion will revolve around the other batsman: do England go for experience (Ramprakash, Crawley, Wells), or another specialist opener (Nick Knight is favoured) or do they pull one out of the hat (David Byas)? Crawley would be my choice to open, in that he has the technique and the ambition. It is true that he has limited experience of opening but it is now forgotten that Mike Atherton was Lancashire's regular No 3 when he first appeared for England and did not move up for county and country until later. Robin Smith is another viable alternative but there seems a general reluctance to take his courage and tenacity from the middle for fear of removing the backbone.

Another factor is the state of the Old Trafford pitch. Edgbaston, it was reported, was flat and full of runs. More accurate forecasts will be sought from Peter Marron, the groundsman at Old Trafford which now has a reputation for providing a good cricket surface, a true bounce, a little pace and some turn from about the third day onwards. We shall have some indication of how the selectors expect the pitch to play when the squad is announced tomorrow.

We have now reached that point in the summer when planning can no longer encompass purely the next match. South Africa looms in the autumn, to be followed by the World Cup in India and Pakistan, and some thought will have to be given to players who may be needed after this exciting, damaging, even exhausting series is over. Thursday's XI could read: Atherton, Crawley, Hick, Thorpe, Smith, Watkinson, Cork, Russell, DeFreitas, Gough, Fraser.

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