England will fly to Australia next month on a wing and several prayers. Yesterday's reports concentrated on Darren Gough and Graham Thorpe – a spearhead who has yet to recover from a long-term injury and a middle-order fulcrum whose last appearance on a cricket field was notable only for its emotional turmoil. But these are only two of a dozen risks that England are taking.
Simon Jones and Steve Harmison, while both excitingly fast, are also injury-prone, and Harmison suffers from homesickness. Andy Caddick, only just back from injury himself, is a rhythm bowler who will not be helped by the sharp reduction in warm-up matches. Andy Flintoff is recovering from a hernia operation. The only quick bowler in the party who hasn't added to his medical history this summer is Matthew Hoggard – who, for all his heart and swing, blows almost as hot-and-cold as Caddick.
Michael Vaughan, whose silky strokeplay is what the summer of 2002 will be remembered for, is about to have a knee operation. His opening partner, Marcus Trescothick, is only just back from a multiple fracture of the thumb. The man who follows them, and doubles as their only convincing deputy, Mark Butcher, is not fully recovered from knee surgery.
Nasser Hussain has a bad back, is patently exhausted, and although his batting form has held up well, he is going through his first bad patch as a tactician. Alec Stewart, while in great shape and voice for a man of his age ("Bowled, JC Laker!"), is a wicketkeeper-batsman who has only to see a baggy green cap to start batting like a specialist 'keeper.
The spare batsman, John Crawley, has a frailty outside off stump which will reassure Glenn McGrath that even though Mike Atherton has retired, there is still one educated Mancunian to be eaten for breakfast. Mark Ramprakash, England's leading batsman on the last tour of Australia – and the man who lit the fire in their only victory with a wonder-catch off a pull from Justin Langer – has been left behind, because of his failures against lesser teams.
Flintoff has only ever made runs against New Zealand, and the selectors have just dumped the three men best equipped to join him in the lower middle-order – Craig White, Alex Tudor and Dominic Cork. The only No 8 left is Ashley Giles, who is more of a decent No 9 – and whose meat-and-potatoes bowling has brought him only 19 Test wickets outside Asia, at an average of 52 and a strike rate of 115. Richard Dawson, if he plays at all, will go into the Adelaide or Sydney Test with hardly any cricket behind him, after taking months to get going this summer. Even James Foster is a risk, with his propensity for dropping straightforward takes and catches.
All in all, the single most important man in the tour party looks like being the physio, Dean Conway. And yet, and yet ... most of these risks had to be taken. England will never beat the Aussies with the sort of second-string team they have been forced to field for much of the past year. Gough's record in Australia – 41 wickets in eight Tests, and never a hint of deference or doubt – demanded his inclusion. Thorpe, too, is a legitimate gamble, for the same reason that Ramprakash is a misguided omission: he has been there and done that.
Who dares ... is slightly less likely to lose. Most unusually, England will set off knowing what their first XI is: Trescothick, Vaughan, Butcher, Hussain, Thorpe, Stewart, Flintoff, Giles, Gough, Caddick and Hoggard, with one of the young tearaways replacing Gough if, as must be more likely than not, he loses the fitness battle.
That is a very decent team, battle-hardened, with big figures in all the central roles – openers, middle order (McGrath will have to think before he announces which scalps he is targeting), captain, keeper, opening bowlers. The only weak links are Giles and maybe Flintoff, although both should be helped by being clearly marked as stock bowlers: for the first time, they will be lining up with England's top three wicket-takers. If Gough, Caddick, Hoggard and Flintoff really do take the field together, Hussain will have his preferred new-ball attack of the past three years, plus the makeshift one that did him proud in India and at Lord's in July.
It is not clear how far the selectors have looked beyond that XI. If a spinner is not required, which may well be the case at Brisbane, Perth and Melbourne, the vacant place could end up going to Crawley just because the spare fast bowlers offer little with the bat – Jones may have tonked the Indians around Lord's, but that doesn't make him an Ashes No 8. And then there will be only four bowlers, and Flintoff will be forced to put in long spells on hard surfaces – which will be bad for his fitness and, given his flabby strike rate, for England's chances of taking 20 wickets. Hussain may have to do a Mark Taylor with his part-time bowlers, conjuring the odd wicket out of Trescothick and Butcher as well as Vaughan.
The most influential of cricket's laws, the law of averages, is on England's side. It says that Australia will lose a home Test for the first time in four years; that Adam Gilchrist will finally take his modest one-day form into the Tests; that Matthew Hayden will return to earth, McGrath will get injured, Shane Warne will get hammered, Stewart will make runs, and England will experience a mass outbreak of good health. Well, we can dream.
Tim de Lisle is editor of Wisden Cricketers' Almanack 2003
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