The English are not world class at many things these days but we still yield to no one in our ability to form a queue

BEYOND THE BOUNDARY
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Before the first Test I asked Mike Atherton which he would rather win, the series against West Indies or the forthcoming World Cup. He answers most questions without hesitation, but on this occasion there was a pause. Then he said: "This series. Just."

Now we are half-way through the series and, thanks to the brevity of Edgbaston, in the midst of the longest interlude in a recent home season - 19 days of rest, recuperation and, in Atherton's case, renewed run-making. He has won a medal, and deserves another for putting up with some more grief from the twin banes of his life, the authorities and the tabloids. Which is the more idiotic, the notion that Atherton should not have commented on the Edgbaston pitch, or the idea that a photograph of him naked in a dressing room constitutes news?

The Sun was not doing journalism a favour, but it may have done England one. Last time the paper invaded Atherton's privacy (chasing him round the Lake District in the days after the Handful of Dust) it had the effect of stiffening his already steely resolve. He carried on as captain, followed two low scores with a 99 and led England back from one down against South Africa to honourable parity.

That is probably the limit of England's realistic ambition this time, though at 1-2 with three to play they have more than a mathematical chance of beating the West Indies for the first time in 26 years. To do it, they will have to be at their best. And that goes for the selectors as well as the men they select. The astonishing thing about this series, given the form the selectors have been in, is that England are only one down. Ray Illingworth can take plenty of credit for bringing in Dominic Cork, and for bringing back Robin Smith. But the rest has been a muddle.

It has been a long time since the god of injuries smiled on England, and at first glance Edgbaston seemed like more of the same. But if you looked a bit harder, it was clear that the broken fingers were pointing the selectors in the right direction. The players who got hurt, either at Edgbaston or straight afterwards, were the ones who should not have been there, or should have been, but in a different role.

In the first category are Jason Gallian,Richard Illingworth and Peter Martin. All are examples of a curious weakness in the England system. The English are not world class at many things these days but we still yield to no one in our ability to form a queue. Yet when it comes to team selection, where queues really matter, we cannot do it. The selectors demand discipline and consistency from the players, but seldom offer any in return. Ray Illingworth stands at the back of the bus and instead of saying "sorry mate, full up", he says "sorry mate, no room for you but we'll take the bloke behind you."

Gallian was unmistakably the bloke behind John Crawley, who had played five Tests, made two fine 70s, and then gone away and put in some hard work on his fitness and technique. Martin was way behind Cork and Glen Chapple, who had led the England A attack with distinction. And Richard Illingworth was so far behind the other spinners (Patel, Stemp, Tufnell, Such, Udal, Uncle John Emburey and all), he was standing in another queue altogether - the one marked World Cup.

And how did they perform? Martin was big-hearted and reliable, but unthreatening; he bowled like an all-rounder (two wickets an innings, at most) and batted like a bowler. He should be filed under "promising" and sent back to Old Trafford. Illingworth was the same, only more so; one wicket per innings, at most. It would be unfair to judge Gallian on his abbreviated debut. Equally, it would be unfair to expose his battered hand to bowling that is nasty, brutish and short.

Which leaves Alec Stewart. After Lord's and his superb catch to dismiss Brian Lara, the debate about his role abated. It should not have. The issue is not how well he keeps wicket, but how well he bats while doing so. His top score in this series is 37. In six completed innings, England have managed only six individual fifties. Stewart is one of the few people on earth capable of scoring two hundreds in a match against the West Indies. But not if he is keeping wicket.

There is a common solution to all these problems. It is a radical one, bordering on reckless, but this is no time for faint hearts. It is this: the selectors must sit down and ask themselves who are the best players in the country. The six best batsmen, the five best bowlers, the best wicketkeeper (or keeper-batsman) and the best all-rounder. Then, next Thursday, they just leave out the two bowlers whom the conditions are least likely to suit.

What sort of squad would this give us? The six best batsmen are Atherton, Stewart, Hick (just), Thorpe, Smith and Crawley. The best wicketkeeper is Colin Metson or Jack Russell. The best batsman-keeper is Keith Brown. The five best bowlers are Fraser, Cork, Gough, Malcolm and Emburey. The best all-rounder is probably Watkinson.

This way of thinking is simple, perhaps insultingly so. But if the selectors had followed it for the first three Tests, would they really have picked Illingworth or Martin, or Gallian?

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