The winter of opportunity

Simon O'Hagan says that England must seize their rare chance to plan ahead
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The Independent Online
In The season in which so-called pinch-hitting has entered the tactical mainstream, the England cricket selectors will be looking to try their own form of it when they meet tomorrow night to choose the party to tour Zimbabwe and New Zealand this winter.

No Test-playing nation is to be taken lightly - especially not by England - but circumstances demand that these two be chiefly regarded as an inner ring of fielders beyond which Australia, who come here next summer, represent the ultimate target.

England will feel they have under-achieved if they come back without having won both series. Zimbabwe, where they play two Tests and three one-day internationals in a six-week tour beginning in late November, remain the Durham of Test cricket four years after being admitted to the fold. New Zealand, where England play three Tests and five one-day internationals in a 10-week tour beginning in early January (they fly straight there from Zimbabwe), are a shadow of the side that touched world- class when Martin Crowe and Richard Hadlee were in their prime.

More than mere results, however, the need is for a core of players to establish itself before the stakes, and the standards, are raised with the arrival of the Australians in May. Consistency of selection and performance has long been England's problem, and the importance of getting it right this time can hardly be overstated.

Certainly this party will be looking to stay together rather longer than was the case with the 16 men chosen to tour South Africa last winter. It is an indictment of something that, 12 months on, as many as half of those players - Graeme Hick, Robin Smith, Mark Ramprakash, Angus Fraser, Richard Johnson, Mark Ilott, Richard Illingworth and Mike Watkinson - are completely out of the running for places on this winter's tour.

As well as the senior squad, the selectors must choose an A team for a 10-week tour of Australia starting next month, and to some extent the debate over the two parties will be inseparable. Competition for places will be particularly intense: to avoid players being underemployed, the selectors have decided that only 15, one fewer than usual, need be taken to Zimbabwe and New Zealand. When the time comes for replacements, as it surely will, halfway round the world is nowadays not too far to fly someone at short notice.

The 15 is expected to comprise six batsmen, one wicketkeeper, one all- rounder and seven bowlers, of whom two will be spinners. Already 11 of the party appear to have been inked in, starting with the batsmen who were the main source of encouragement in the summer's Test series against India and Pakistan: Mike Atherton, Alec Stewart, Nick Knight, Graham Thorpe, Nasser Hussain and John Crawley.

Jack Russell was on a promise from the moment he was sacrificed for Stewart for the last Test. Robert Croft, whose combination of character and ability make him ideal tourist material, gets a spinner's place, and there are three fast-bowling certainties in Dominic Cork, Alan Mullally and Darren Gough, whose form in the one-dayers against Pakistan only made his omission from every previous Test squad all the more puzzling.

The debate will begin to hot up over the identity of England's all-rounder. Mark Ealham is a much better bowler than Ronnie Irani and not much worse a batsman. Adam Hollioake is a better batsman than either and on a par with Ealham as a bowler. He is having a tremendous end to the season - wickets in the one-dayers, a stack of runs in the County Championship last week - and while there is a temptation to make him captain of the A team, he may just capitalise on the weaknesses in the arguments for his two rivals.

Last week's county matches were notable too for the late bids made to accompany Croft as the second spinner. But can Phil Tufnell, whose 13 for 123 against Lancashire, a career-best, took his tally for the season to 74, ever do enough to get back in the selectors' favour? He and Croft would be an attractive combination were they ever to get on the field together, but unfortunately for Tufnell there is a compromise available in another left-armer, Richard Stemp, who has also been among the wickets recently.

As a fellow-Yorkshireman, Stemp might be assumed to have Ray Illingworth's vote. But the outgoing chairman of selectors is understood not to see this as an opportunity to impose his will one last time, and Stemp will have to take his chance in a contest in which Ian Salisbury, in spite of his inconsistency against Pakistan, is not out of the running, and Ashley Giles of Warwickshire will also figure.

The two vacancies for fast bowlers offer the tantalising prospect of Devon Malcolm returning to the fold. Again, a mollified Illingworth may have something to do with this. The fall-out from the South Africa episode went on for so long this season that it was unimaginable for him to be picked, but he has played his part in a resurgent Derbyshire team and is now right back in the reckoning. Andrew Caddick, unfairly dropped after a promising return at Headingley, ought to get one of the places, while of the other contenders Dean Headley has probably moved ahead of Peter Martin.

The A team is much more open. If the selectors are looking for a captain equivalent to Nasser Hussain in Pakistan last winter, Mark Ramprakash is the man. This may be a winter for him to have off, however, in which case an older hand like Matthew Maynard or even David Byas might be entrusted with the job. The selectors naturally want a young team, but not a very young one, so David Sales, the 18-year-old Northamptonshire batsman, may have to be patient for a while. But Vikram Solanki, 20, has an excellent chance of being rewarded for the form he has shown with both bat and ball for Worcestershire.