You wait ages for an England batsman to score a first international hundred, and then three come along in one summer

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The Independent Online
Something has transpired over the past few days which hasn't happened for years, and which we followers of the England team (that sad tribe) thought would never happen again. England have discovered a top six.

At the start of the summer, only three batsmen were in possession of season tickets: Mike Atherton, Graham Thorpe and Graeme Hick. And one of them didn't hold on to his for very long. But Atherton and Thorpe have now been joined by four men who have all done enough to be certain - or as certain as you can be with Raymond Illingworth at the controls - of a place on this winter's tours.

It's typical. You wait ages for an England batsman to score a first international hundred, and then three come along in one summer. Ally Brown is not looking like an international batsman just at the moment (although his strange season may be evidence of the very quality that is most needed - an ability to raise your game when you step up to the highest level). But Nasser Hussain and Nick Knight have made the big leap. They have scored big runs against good bowlers. They have brought a nonchalant excellence to the outfielding and they have looked the part in general - athletic, confident, self-possessed, visibly intelligent. The only thing they don't do is bowl.

John Crawley hasn't made a hundred yet, and will rue the creasebound swish that got him out at Headingley when he had just reached 50. His fielding is merely respectable, and he is not the most natural athlete. But he makes up for it on the other scores. He went to the smartest university of the three (Cambridge; Hussain was at Durham, Knight at Loughborough), and he reads leg-spin as if it were just another history book. To come in on Sunday, with England still 280 behind, and face the world's second- best leg-spinner, and play no stroke to a ball pitching in the corridor of uncertainty because it was clearly a leg-break showed a wonderful combination of shrewdness and sangfroid.

Meanwhile, Alec Stewart has been reborn. As his television interviews confirmed ("as I say, David . . . as I say . . . as I say"), he is a cricketer of a different stamp from these young men with their sideburns and flopping fringes and fancy degrees. But put a bat in his hand and, as long as he remembers to move his feet, the old pro plays like a Champagne Charlie.

When he first established himself in the England side with a hundred against Sri Lanka, he seemed the sort of player who might flourish only against the world's more gentle attacks. But he has the unique distinction of scoring two hundreds in a Test in the West Indies and his record against Pakistan, when selected simply as a batsman, is now spectacular: 190, 74 and 69 not out, 15, 39, 89 and 170, for an average of 107. When asked to keep wicket, he has made 8, 2, 31 and 8, for an average of 12. And still Illingworth wants to drop Jack Russell.

Paradoxically, it may be partly because of his wicketkeeping that Stewart plays the fast swinging ball so well. He has kept wicket many times to Waqar Younis, and his exceptional eye is accompanied by quick, nimble feet. He also likes to play from the crease, and is especially strong clipping off his toes.

His 170 was the innings of Stewart's life, and it may be asking too much to expect him to do it again. But his previous Test hundreds all came in clusters: four in five Tests from August 1991 to June 1992, and three in four Tests between April and June 1994. And his hundred yesterday suggests that he is in the mood for more.

The fact England have a top six ought to be greeted with dancing in the streets. Instead, yesterday's papers had words like conundrum and dilemma in large type. The problem is that one of the six may have to be dropped to accommodate a fifth bowler, and none of them deserves it. Leaving out a player who is worth a place is a sign of strength. We don't do it nearly often enough.

England's tactics for The Oval should be left open until the last minute. All six batsmen will be in the squad and should be told this weekend that they are required for the winter. Knowing our cricketers, there will probably be an injury. If not, the selectors will have to make a choice of two out of Hussain, Crawley and Knight. Or they can take a harder look at the bowling and ask themselves if it was really quality that was lacking at Headingley.

For the first time this summer, Atherton didn't handle his bowlers well. Having done much to establish the opening partnership of Dominic Cork and Chris Lewis, he gave the crucial first new ball to Andrew Caddick and Alan Mullally. When Cork and Lewis did come on, they were not themselves. Cork bounced back; Lewis, with his brittle confidence, took longer, but one poor match should not be allowed to outweigh three very solid ones.

England have no Waqar, no Wasim and no Mushtaq. Apart from that, there's not much wrong with their bowlers, if only the selectors would pick the right ones. At The Oval, this means Cork, Lewis (as a strike bowler), Darren Gough and Phil Tufnell (as a stock bowler), with Mullally and Caddick in the squad. If Lewis is unfit, send for Devon Malcolm. Illy's leaving party won't be complete without him.

Tim de Lisle is the editor of 'Wisden Cricket Monthly'.