Tim De Lisle Column: England must cut out the chop and change

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The Independent Online
HAVE I got a Have I Got News For You-style question for you. Who is the odd man out among the present England selectors - David Graveney, Graham Gooch, Mike Gatting or Nasser Hussain?

The answer has nothing to do with facial hair. It's about how these men, when they were less august, were themselves treated by the selectors. Gooch made his England debut at 21, but was dropped after two Tests and did not establish himself in the side until he was 26. Gatting made his debut at 20, got dropped several times, and only established himself at 27. Hussain made his debut at 21, disappeared for three years, returned, vanished again, and only became a regular at 28. The odd man out is Graveney, who was treated with perfect consistency by the selectors throughout a long playing career - he was consistently ignored.

On becoming England captain last week, Hussain said the first task was to rid the team of its inconsistency. He's right, but first he has to persuade his fellow selectors to cure themselves of the same disease.

In Mike Atherton's 52 Tests as captain, 50 players pulled on the woolly blue cap. Alec Stewart, in just 11 Tests, got through 23 players. And those 23 did not include five men who turned up for England duty at Edgbaston yesterday - Andy Caddick, Phil Tufnell, Chris Silverwood, Aftab Habib and Chris Read.

England use about about twice as many players as the leading Test teams. Which may explain why they are about half as good.

The problem was put in a nutshell this week by an England player who may well turn out to be a stroke of selectorial brilliance - Alex Tudor. He pointed to Jacques Kallis, who at the age of only 23 is probably the second-best all-rounder in the world, just behind Lance Klusener. Tudor is enough of a student of the game to know that Kallis's early steps in the South African team were faltering ones. Going into the series in Australia 18 months ago, Kallis had a batting average of 15 from six Tests. Hansie Cronje and Bob Woolmer stuck with him, knowing a class player when they saw one. He made a match-saving hundred in Sydney and has never looked back. Tudor's point was that if Kallis had been English, he would have been dropped before he made that hundred.

Meanwhile, in England, there is a young batsman who has struck many observers the way Kallis did, as having an unusually secure technique and composed temperament. His name is Darren Maddy and just over a year ago he was the flavour of the month. He was one of the first fringe names inked in to the Texaco Trophy squad to play South Africa. He played in the first match, lasted three balls, and was out for one. England lost. Changes were demanded. He was dropped for the next match. England lost again. Changes were demanded again. He was recalled. England won, easily, so he wasn't required to bat. Next time a one-day squad was picked, he wasn't in it. It was agreed that he was more of a Test player anyway.

Last weekend, the consensus was that there was a vacancy at No 6 in the Test side, following the inconsistent displays from Graeme Hick and John Crawley in Australia. If this was South Africa, Maddy would still have been at the front of the queue. But that spare place went to his county colleague, Aftab Habib. The upshot is that 13 months after he first played for England, the selectors are none the wiser about Maddy, and Maddy is either scratching his head or tearing his hair out.

This is not to say Habib is a bad choice. With Stewart and David Lloyd leaving the flight deck, a change of direction was to be expected. (Lloyd wasn't officially a selector, but you can clearly make out a hole where his influence was: England's XI tomorrow will be the first with no Lancashire player in it for 99 Tests. You have to go back to Trinidad, 1990, to find an England team that didn't include either Atherton, Fairbrother, Hegg, Crawley or DeFreitas in his Lancastrian period.)

You can understand Hussain wanting to put his own stamp on the team. It's good to hear him say that no one is excluded because of being regarded as a difficult character, and this column particularly looks forward to Chris Lewis's next recall.

What must change is the urge to chop and change. If cricketers want to lead promiscuous private lives, that is a matter for them. Running a team requires a degree of fidelity. If you place faith in people, the chances are they will repay it.

Central contracts for England players, long talked about, are finally about to happen. Originally, the idea was to give them to 15 or 16 players, but there is now talk of reducing that figure to eight. The shires must be bright enough to see that central contracts will bring greater consistency of selection, and greater accountability for the selectors. On the field, England's biggest problem is batting collapses. Has it occurred to anyone that the reason for this might be that the players feel their heads are on the block every time they put on their helmets?

Tim de Lisle is editor of Wisden Cricket Monthly

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