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Atherton missing elusive 'balance'

By Mark Nicholas

Saturday, 28 February 1998

DAVID LLOYD said that he thought it was a gamble to pick two spinners for the fourth Test match in a dry-as-a-bone Georgetown. What England's coach probably meant was that it was a gamble to pick only two seamers - a comment which crystalises the perennial problem facing the men who choose the England team.

There is no decent all-rounder, at least not on this West Indies tour, so the balance of the side suffers. When Alec Stewart keeps wicket, it is fine. He is well worth his place with bat and gloves, but when he opens the batting and does not keep it exposes England's limitations, and mostly those are with the ball.

When Raymond Illingworth became chairman of selectors four years ago, he swore allegiance to a balanced attack, by which he meant three seamers and two spinners. Right sentiment, wrong personnel, which led to a batting problem; too long a tail exposed by too thin a batting line-up. The trend is for modern Test teams to include six specialist batsmen before much else, the theory being that if you score enough runs you are 'in the game' and can then 'pressure' - i.e., bore batsmen out with blood, sweat and accuracy bowling.

The problem with the theory, and why it has such credence, is that it has been most effectively employed by the best two teams of the last two decades. The West Indies and Australia have been blessed with bowling geniuses, Malcolm Marshall and Shane Warne respectively, to complement the other excellence provided by Holdings, Garners and Ambroses; McDermotts, Hugheses and McGraths.

England have not boasted one such bowler, not since the pomp of Ian Botham and the best of Bob Willis anyway, and so, unless a pitch is tailor-made for a Fraser type, they must spread their bowling workload more evenly. All of which knocks the four-bowler principle into a cocked hat. At least that was the way 'Illy' saw it, the way it always was when he and his age grew into the game and the way it needs to be for England today. It is not that the selectors do not know this, just that they do not trust anyone to implement it. Chris Lewis, Dominic Cork and Mark Ealham are the men most likely, but Lewis and Cork have lost favour and Ealham, much respected by the Australians last summer, never had the favour of his captain.

It was 50 Tests ago that Mike Atherton first captained England, and on that occasion, against Australia at Edgbaston, he chose two spinners, Peter Such and John Emburey, and only two seamers, Martin Bicknell and Mark Ilott.

England lost by eight wickets. Oh, and Stewart batted at five and kept wicket. Which does not prove much, but it suggests something. The something is that packing your side with batsmen - Nasser Hussain was at No 7 for that match - is a false security rendered useless anyway if you do not take enough wickets.

Atherton was right, on sight of the pitch, to go with two spinners this time and probably right, given Stewart's superb batting, to not burden him further with the gloves.

The problem was not with the options which are here but with those which are not, the elusive all-rounders, for whom England still search.

Source: The Electronic Telegraph
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Date-stamped : 28 Feb1998 - 10:20