For the team who cannot win a match it must have felt like sabotage. England, increasingly desperate for an international victory this winter, woke up yesterday to discover that their prospects for the summer were being undermined.
Kent have signed the Australia fast bowler Stuart Clark for six weeks at the start of the summer – giving a player returning from injury ideal practice in English conditions just before the Ashes. It follows the recruitment by Middlesex of the rampant young Australian batsman Phillip Hughes and elicited an uncharacteristically irritable response from Hugh Morris, managing director of England cricket.
"The decision of Kent to sign Stuart Clark so that he continue his rehabilitation from injury in order to be fit for the Test series has met with dismay throughout the game," he said. "Clearly it's up to Kent which players they sign but it's an incredibly busy and important year for cricket in England and we wish to give England every chance of regaining the Ashes.
"We all know the impetus gained from the 2005 success which led to greater financial rewards and participation in the game. I would have hoped all counties would have shared our goal of repeating that and would have allowed every possible opportunity to succeed."
Morris's frustration was shared by the chairman of selectors, Geoff Miller, who is in Guyana helping to plot a way to win against the West Indies in the forthcoming one-day series. "It's disappointing," Miller said. "I can't see it happening the other way round." Privately, he must have been seething. The last thing he and a beleaguered England needed towards the culmination of a long winter was to be usurped at home.
The signing of Clark – Kent must hope that the juxtaposition of his name and theirs will produce Superman – follows that of the rampant 20-year-old batsman Phillip Hughes by Middlesex. As Miller pointed out, Clark already knows English conditions but is being given a chance to get match fit. Hughes has never played in England but now has a golden opportunity to familiarise himself.
Paul Millman, the chief executive of Kent, said: "I'm not sure what I'm expected to say. We have got a cricket season ahead of us for Kent and as far as we're concerned the issue is about what we need. There are no criteria set out about who we can andcan't sign. We have got other responsibilities towards England but we have four players contending for England places, more than any other county."
England might think that with friends like Kent and Middlesex, they hardly need enemies. They already have their work cut out in Georgetown with the momentum going only one way. Following their arrival here, the tourists had a two-hour team meeting at which most players spoke in an attempt to find a way to international victory after 14 failed attempts this winter. They were also confronted with other more local difficulties.
Andrew Strauss, the captain, had his right leg heavily strapped yesterday because of a hamstring strain. While he is, according to the official bulletin, "not necessarily doubtful" for the opening one-day international at Providence Stadium on Friday it caused a rash of speculation about who his stand-in might be.
In an inexperienced team, one obvious name was Kevin Pietersen, the man who was deposed in January. Reinstating him, albeit temporarily, would be almost as controversial as counties signing Australian Test stars in an Ashes year. But not quite.
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