Why England are in a stew - Sport - The Independent

Why England are in a stew

Stewart's role assumes central importance as selectors weigh up the options for the series against the West Indies; Derek Pringle looks at strategic worries ahead of this summer's Test series

HISTORY has a beguiling way of throwing up close parallels. Four years ago, when England last faced the West Indies at Headingley, one man so dominated the outcome of the match that the bit parts and their players have now been all but forgotten. In arctic conditions, Graham Gooch played his greatest Test innings, an unbeaten 154, setting the West Indies 278 to win, a total they failed to threaten, giving England an historic victory by 115 runs.

For those lucky enough to witness it, the innings left a lasting impression. Four years on, and one man again threatens to dominate proceedings, this time before a single ball has been bowled. It would not be too wide of the mark to suggest that the whole structure of England's team rests upon the role played by Alec Stewart. Should he be cast as the dashing lead with bat alone, or should he play the twin supporting tasks of steadying the middle-order and keeping wicket?

The Australian coach, Bobby Simpson thinks it should be the latter, though you cannot trust an Australian to give a pom some fair dinkum advice, and in any case both have drawbacks. If selected purely as an opening batsman, it will be hard to fit in the best bowlers, unless the keeper, probably Steve Rhodes, bats at No 7. But play Stewart as your keeper to accommodate the bowlers and the whole of the batting order behind Atherton is thrown out of synch.

Doubtless, the pros and cons of such a move will have had the selectors prevaricating well into last night and it may even have taken a third brandy before they were all agreed on their 12 for the first Test at Headingley next Thursday. They will make their announcement today.

Both options have their own logic, but which ever way is finally agreed upon, there is bound to be some unease, not least because, for the first time, the West Indies really do look vulnerable and first Tests are nearly always accurate pointers in deciding which way the series goes. Stewart's eventual role will either herald upheaval or the status quo, depending on where he bats. If he keeps wicket, either Hick or Thorpe will have to move up to open with Atherton, with Stewart slotting in at four. Mark Ramprakash will then follow at five, with either John Crawley, Alan Wells or Robin Smith batting at six.

For a man who rarely practises the keeper's art, Stewart is more than competent behind the stumps, but he is even better in front of them, where his beautifully timed strokes off front and back foot rarely allow opening bowlers to settle. Good starts are imperative against a bowling attack that often cruises along waiting for a break before upping the pace.

If it is important to have a dashing foil to Atherton's more patient blade, then Stewart must open, although Ray Illingworth's stated preference for a balanced bowling attack, including at least one spinner and an all- rounder, makes it even harder to play a specialist keeper unless, like the former West Indies gloveman Jeffrey Dujon, that player is a Test quality No 6.

To compound the situation, a sudden burst of bowling talent seems to have arrived, with each player making a plausible case for playing at Headingley, now relaid and not the trundler-friendly pitch England used to rely on to provide parity. Apart from some variable bounce, last summer's pitch against South Africa seemed, if anything, to get flatter, helping neither spin nor seam as the match wore on.

If Stewart does accept the gloves, either Dominic Cork or Craig White will probably fill the all-rounder's role at No 7. Cork's strength is his bowling, though on the evidence of the recent one-dayers - his dismissal of Carl Hooper at Trent Bridge apart - he seems to possess little more than a Botham-like knack of dismissing batsmen with rank-bad deliveries.

White, on the other hand, is not so fortunate, and his waywardness, as has been shown in the past, can be exploited. However, White bats better than he bowls and has been in fine form so far this season, knuckling down to score valuable runs for Yorkshire on difficult pitches.

With Darren Gough a certainty at No 8, that leaves two more places to be fought over, given that one spinner is to be selected. On the evidence so far, these would be between Phillip DeFreitas, Angus Fraser, Devon Malcolm and Peter Martin, though for a one-off selection, Yorkshire's Peter Hartley, at present top of the first-class bowling averages, would be the form pick.

Martin bowled well in the one-day matches, troubling all the West Indies batsmen with his deceptive swing and cut and he really ought to play. On the other hand, Devon Malcolm would offer the extra dimension of sheer pace, though the latest news is the pitch, which has been wet through, is likely to be slow. If this remains true, accuracy and movement will prove more effective weapons than all-out pace, thus bringing Fraser and DeFreitas into the equation.

It is a conundrum that will have tested the most avid armchair selector, particularly when there is still a spinner, or even two, to be fitted in. Illingworth likes his bowlers to be able to field and hold a bat, which could rule out Peter Such and Phil Tufnell, leaving either Shaun Udal or Richard Stemp to provide the orthodox right-arm and left-arm spin respectively. Of the four, though, only Tufnell features in this season's bowling averages, though his effectiveness will be diminished as the West Indies middle-order is almost exclusively left-handed, which means he will be turning the ball into them instead of away.

It was in the equivalent fixture four years ago that Michael Atherton held the final catch of the match, a swirling steepler from Courtney Walsh that won the game. It was a brilliant piece of work by the present England captain, and was instantly followed up by a display of unaffected joy the like of which has been missing from his game until that scintillating one-day knock at Lord's a week ago.

If the Headingley script repeats itself, the huge grin will return and England, under their rightful leader, will have turned an important corner. My 12 for Headingley would be: Atherton, Stewart, Hick, Thorpe, Ramprakash, Wells, Rhodes, Gough, DeFreitas, Fraser, Martin, Such.

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