Why Illy can thank Lord's

Derek Pringle discusses how England can benefit from ordered thinking
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The Independent Online
ENGLAND'S selectors rarely dine as a quorum without one of them thinking it might be their Last Supper. However, last night's meeting to pick a side for Thursday's Third Test at Edgbaston would have been conducted in surroundings of such beatitude that had the England captain proposed a toast to Ray Illingworth over his role in shaping the team who beat the West Indies at Lord's, the chairman of selectors might have given silent thanks to the only acknowledged authority higher than himself for allowing England to have won the toss.

It would be unfair to suggest that England were lucky, for this was a deserving performance from Michael Atherton and his side. In any case, Richie Richardson has called right on every other occasion this summer. But whatever the forces behind the coin, that small slice of fortune allowed Illingworth's gamble to unfold as if it were some grand plan, rather than a despot's gamble. It also allowed England to have first use of a dry pitch, whose widening cracks threatened the morale of the opposition more than it should have.

Illingworth has every right to cock a snook at those who criticised his Headingley selections, but his post-match comments missed the point. Nobody suggested that Alec Stewart wasn't able to keep wicket, only that he should not be consigned to the middle-order as a consequence, a situation that could easily have been repeated at Lord's had England spent the first day and a half in the field.

It must be plain that Robin Smith is ill-equipped in temperament and soft-handed defensive technique to cope with the new ball. By contrast, Stewart needs that hardness and fielders around the bat to give him the space to get started, something that is denied a batsman at five or six where Smith prospers.

The sudden, last-minute dismissal of Steve Rhodes jeopardised their optimum positions, from where Smith played his match-winning 90 in the second innings. However, there is no denying the bravery of the decision which allowed England to field five bowlers, though Richard Illingworth's spin was largely superfluous.

The return of big Gus Fraser (another exclusion from Headingley) gave Atherton the control he lacked in Leeds, but if Fraser's performance placed his side in a promising position, it was the debutant Dominic Cork who saw them decisively past the chequered flag. Considering Cork could rarely have seen a pitch as dry as Lord's, his seven wickets in the second innings was a fine achievement. What he did, and what England have so often lacked in the past, was to hustle and bustle the opposition, never allowing them to settle.

In Test matches, properly channelled aggression can make up for shortfalls in other departments. More than any of the other bowlers, Cork seems to have paid both heed and homage to the recent methods used by the Australian bowlers. On the last day, England's winning momentum was almost entirely fuelled by his enterprise.

If his batting can develop, England may have found a genuine all-rounder, though his absence from the present county game after bowling fewer than 42 overs at Lord's suggests his body does not share the bold strength of his big-match temperament. If it is nothing more than fatigue, then the unwritten rule that only players playing in current Championship matches should be considered for selection will rightfully be waived.

A similar situation - by a quirk of the fixture list - shouldn't prevent John Crawley's eligibility. Crawley, who lost his place to Mark Ramprakash following a pair at Perth in the winter, may get another chance after an identical fate befell Ramprakash last week. Successive Test match ducks are the ultimate humiliation, and it is to Ramprakash's credit that he responded with a double century against Surrey.

If everyone is fit, only 12 players need be chosen, with an off-spinner filling the vacancies left by DeFreitas and Rhodes. This is likely to be Mike Watkinson, after his fine all-round performances against Essex last week.

There is no doubt, that for his next big trick, the Great Raymondo would dearly love to conjure up an England win, in which two spinners take all second-innings wickets between them. But Edgbaston - Castle Lara - is too early for that.

My 12 would be: Atherton, Stewart, Hick, Thorpe, Smith, Ramprakash, Cork, Gough, Martin, Illingworth, Fraser, Watkinson.

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