Wells to get his wish

Derek Pringle weighs the options as the deciding Test match beckons
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The Independent Online
IN four days' time at the Oval, England will begin the sixth and final match of this electrifying Test series, which is tied at two games apiece. Not since Ray Illingworth led his team to victory over the West Indies in 1969 have England been in possession of the Wisden Trophy, and only once, in 1990, have England's cricketers been this close to regaining it against these formidable opponents.

Should England prevail, it will be a triumph born of the new resilience that Illingworth, the chairman of selectors, and his captain Michael Atherton have instilled in a side which, despite suffering two heavy losses at Headingley and Edgbaston, has scrapped and hustled itself virtually to a standstill in a series that, judging by the number of pre-sold seats, has fully captured the public imagination.

In fact, fatigue may be the problem. On the evidence of the last drawn match at Trent Bridge, both teams seem unable to deliver the coup de grace, and though England's glass jaw of recent series may have disappeared, the West Indies' recent ability for leaping up off the canvas just as the referee has reached the count of nine only to deliver the knockout blow, leaves them as marginal favourites. It is a reputation acknowledged by the bookmakers Ladbrokes, who quote the visitors at 5-4 favourites while England are at 7-4.

Perhaps a draw, and with it a drawn series, would be the fairest result for two sides constantly having to change their personnel through injury. So far in this series, England have used 20 players, a tally likely to rise after last night's selection meeting at a hotel just outside Manchester, where the latest sheaf of X-ray photos would no doubt have been passed round with the bread rolls.

There is no doubt that England have been the unluckier of the two sides on this count, with key players such as Alec Stewart, Robin Smith and Darren Gough still out of action. While Smith had no chance of making this crucial last Test, Stewart was thought to have been a likely starter. His absence, despite an obvious lack of batting practice, is a serious blow to the home side's confidence, particularly on the bouncy pitch at the Oval and England will now be looking to Graham Thorpe, his Surrey team-mate to play a leading role.

With Richard Illingworth also unavailable, having refractured his finger at Trent Bridge, the bulk of last night's discussions would have hinged on Atherton's attempts to persuade his chairman to retract a rigid five- bowler policy. Last year at the same venue, when Devon Malcolm demolished South Africa's second innings with nine for 57, Atherton managed to talk Ray Illingworth round to excluding a frontline spinner and England went into the match with only four seamers and Graeme Hick's part-time off- spin.

If Atherton were to get his way, then Malcolm, always a form horse at Surrey's headquarters, would earn a recall, though Mark Ilott of Essex and Middlesex's Richard Johnson will have come into the discussion and either one could be in the squad named this morning. That would mean an attack comprising Cork, Fraser, Malcolm, Watkinson and Hick, though even Watkinson, who batted with great skill and courage at Trent Bridge, may find himself sacrificed for another seamer, if the pitch is as solid as last summer's offering. On the other hand, should the chairman's policy, which includes an all-rounder, prevail, then Craig White, despite a poor showing in this series, may be granted one last chance. Although the Oval pitch is tailored for his "hit the deck" style of bowling, it will ironically not suit his batting and its technical deficiencies against the rising ball around off-stump. The other all-round options, though risky at this vital stage, would be Ronnie Irani and David Capel.

More likely, and especially since registering his seventh first-class century of the season against Worcestershire last Thursday, Alan Wells will replace White and bolster a batting line-up which, despite John Crawley's faltering defence and Nick Knight's tardy 50, will probably remain unchanged from Trent Bridge. However, Hick, not Wells, should fill the No 6 spot, with Jack Russell at seven.

Hick is a better player when his options to attack or defend are more clearly defined, as they will be batting at six. His century at Trent Bridge, despite the self-imposed pressure of his head-to-head with chairman Illingworth, was made on a featherbed, and his critics have not renounced their beliefs. The Oval, however, gives him the perfect platform for the retort absolute, and an England win set up by a fourth Test century from Hick would surely see this reticent public figure taken to English hearts at last.

Ominously for England, Brian Lara seems to be finding his best batting form, while Kenny Benjamin's excellent bowling in the last Test will not have been relished by England's batsmen.More worryingly, Curtly Ambrose may declare himself fit for one last charge for victory. The tall Antiguan fast bowler could again prove to be the vital cog that discourages the cricket world from pronouncing the West Indies' machine obsolete.

My England 12 would be: Atherton, Knight, Crawley, Thorpe, Wells, Hick, Russell, Watkinson, Cork, Fraser, Malcolm, Ilott.