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March 10, 1999


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Walking wounded

Steven Lynch

The hosts have chosen.

David Graveney and his fellow selectors didn't muck about choosing 19 players and discarding four unlucky ones later - they zeroed in on the 15 they wanted for the competition and named them, almost a month earlier than they needed to. Graveney felt there was little point in naming 19 players and then disappointing four of them later on.

The 15 isn't quite cut and dried, though. Four of them face rigorous fitness tests before they can collect their coloured kit for the competition opener, against holders Sri Lanka at Lord's on May 14. Mike Atherton, the former captain, and Graham Thorpe both have to prove that they have recovered from the back trouble which bothered them during the recent Australian tour.

Even if Atherton reports fit, his selection is a gamble: his spinal condition (ankylosing spondylitis) is a degenerative one, and isn't going to go away. It could strike at any time: he could come through a week of fitness tests with flying colours, then be unable to get out of bed the next morning. Worryingly for England, it struck twice last year, forcing Atherton to miss Tests - before that he had a long unbroken record.

Atherton and Thorpe were chosen for two main reasons: the indifferent form of their rivals in Australia, and the dates of the competition. Mid-May - and even early June - in England is not usually a carefree time for batsman. The ball tends to jag about, in the air and especially off the seam. The requirement is not for biff-bang openers but for solid batsmen with proven, orthodox techniques. It will be worth trying your pinch hitter in case it's his day - but don't expect him to come off that often.

Out in the cold are Nasser Hussain, who seems to have paid for some edgy performances in the later one-dayers in Australia, and Mark Ramprakash, who wasn't even required for those games. Hussain must be the first reserve if Thorpe's back plays up again.

The others facing a fitness fight are the Lancashire pair of Neil Fairbrother and Ian Austin. The saga of Fairbrother's niggly hamstring muscle is a longer-running issue than most of the plots in his hometown TV soap, Coronation Street. And Austin, the well-rounded allrounder, had a knee operation shortly before Christmas.

Only ten of the 15 were involved in the seemingly endless parade of one-day internationals in Australia in January and February. Apart from Hussain, the discards are Mark Alleyne, John Crawley, Ashley Giles, Dean Headley and Ben Hollioake. Giles and Headley are the unluckiest to miss out. Giles suffers because of the preconceptions about the seaming pitches - only one spinner (Robert Croft) was deemed necessary. And Headley might have bucked up the fielding.

Ah yes, the fielding. That could be the department where England struggle the most. The players left out include some of England's most athletic fieldsmen - Headley, Hollioake (B.), Hussain and Ramprakash.The only member of the selected side who is under 27 is the exciting Lancashire allrounder Andy Flintoff. He's 21 - England's youngest-ever World Cup representative - but he is unlikely to start in the first-choice side. Graeme Hick and Nick Knight are fine fielders, as is Fairbrother when not hamstrung. But you wouldn't back many of the others to swoop in and throw down the stumps at a vital time.

The bowling is a different matter. Darren Gough showed in Australia that he is among the top fast bowlers of the day. He is now the team 'enforcer' - the one the captain turns to if he needs a wicket. South Africa have Allan Donald, Pakistan have Wasim Akram, Australia have Glenn McGrath ... and England have Gough, whose high-pace inducking yorker will worry a lot of batsmen in the weeks to come.

Alan Mullally cemented a place in Australia, where he impressed both in the Tests (even though he was senselessly left out of the last one) and the one-dayers. His left-arm approach offers welcome variety, and now he has got his inswinger going as well as the one which slants away from the right-hander he is quite a handful. Like his old friend Atherton, Angus Fraser owes his recall to those English pitches: he will nag away at a brisk medium and wobble the ball around. And Austin and Mark Ealham, both low-slung, skiddy bowlers, will be hard to get away. Ealham's batting, which can be explosive at county level, hasn't quite come off in international cricket, but he can give the ball a fearful whack.

Vince Wells, a late developer in international terms, forced his way ahead of the other contenders (Alleyne and Ben Hollioake) with a series of handy performances in Australia. Wells plays for the English county champions, Leicestershire: he moved there seven years ago from Kent, where Ealham and Matthew Fleming (who just missed out on selection) restricted his chances. Wells started at Canterbury as a wicketkeeper, and will be Stewart's emergency back-up in the World Cup squad.

And what of the one spinner, Croft? He knows why he's on his own: 'I think that has a lot to do with the time of year,' he told me. 'It's May-June, when our pitches generally have a bit more grass on them. We've got probably the best exponents of seam bowling in the world, so we should do well.' And if it is hot and dry, and a turning pitch should appear, then Hick's offspin will be pressed into service.

So, the $64,000 question - can England win? They will be hoping to make the most of home advantage, and I think they will progress safely to the second phase. But Australia and South Africa have superior firepower on paper - and I think India and New Zealand also possess the sort of bowlers who will do well in the English spring. And that's discounting Sri Lanka, the champions, who won the inaugural triangular tournament in England last August. I'm glad I'm not a betting man.

The England 15: Alec Stewart (Surrey, captain; age 35, one-day internationals 116), Mike Atherton (Lancashire; 30, 54), Ian Austin (Lancashire; 32, 4), Robert Croft (Glamorgan; 28, 40), Mark Ealham (Kent; 29, 30), Neil Fairbrother (Lancashire; 35, 66), Andy Flintoff (Lancashire; 21, 0), Angus Fraser (Middlesex; 33, 37), Darren Gough (Yorkshire; 28, 56), Graeme Hick (Worcestershire; 32, 87), Adam Hollioake (Surrey: 27, 31), Nick Knight (Warwickshire; 29, 40), Alan Mullally (Leicestershire; 29, 22), Graham Thorpe (Surrey; 29, 44), Vince Wells (Leicestershire; 33, 7).

Steven Lynch is Managing Editor, Wisden Cricket Monthly

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