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Selectors seeking answers to tricky choices

Christopher Martin-Jenkins

16 January 1998

ARRIVING late by road on the north coast yesterday for the start of their long- awaited first match of the tour against Jamaica this morning, England delayed naming an XI whose composition calls for some difficult decisions by the selectors, writes Christopher Martin-Jenkins.

The venue is unsophisticated but the strength of the opposition should be just about right in view of the fact that the first Test, in Kingston on the other side of the Blue Mountains, starts in 13 days. Jamaica, captained by Jimmy Adams, are resting two of their Test attack, Courtney Walsh and Franklyn Rose.

Eight of England's Test team for Sabina Park are inked in, leaving tricky choices between Angus Fraser and Ashley Cowan as the third fast bowler, and between Mark Butcher, John Crawley, Mark Ramprakash and Adam Hollioake for the two unresolved batting places.

It is clear what should happen: far from certain what will. Crawley deserves to bat at five, following Atherton, Stewart, Hussein and Thorpe, and Hollioake would be the wisest choice at six, one place ahead of Jack Russell. Crawley's record is disapointing at the highest level but after 22 Tests he still averages, at 33, almost twice Ramprakash's 17 from 20 games.

Ramprakash displaced Crawley for the final Test last season against Aust- ralia, but when England toured South Africa two winters ago it was the Middlesex man who got the first run in the team despite a classy fifty by Crawley against the West Indies at the Oval in the previous Test. There would be no justice now in giving Ramprakash the same favoured treatment unless he earns it with a major innings.

There would be a case, on the other hand, for putting Ramprakash ahead of Hollioake and Butcher especially as his off-break bowling is considered almost as serious a prospect as Hollioake's medium pace on a flat Test pitch. Personally I doubt that: Hollioake's wiles as a bowler in any match are not to be underestimated. But on batting ability alone - as opposed to big match temperament - Ramprakash would clearly be preferred.

The bowling of Butcher is also, it seems, being taken into consideration. He was a useful, bustling county seaming swing bowler before a back injury caused him to concentrate on his batting and he has apparently done enough in net practice in Kingston for the selectors to feel that he could be used as a seamer.

Whether Fraser or Cowan gets the first chance to claim the place as England's third fast bowler at Sabina Park will clearly depend on what happens in the two preparatory matches but it will be a surprise if it is not Fraser, on grounds of experience and proven accuracy. He may reasonably be expected to play alongside Andrew Caddick and Dean Headley today.

Jarrett Park is delightful but primitive. There are no visible practice facilities, breadfruit trees soften the rough concrete of various ramshackle stands; there is a small, shaggy outfield and a tiny square from which Steve Bucknor has selected one of two possible pitches. It is bare and started brown after overnight rain yesterday but under constant rolling it rapidly turned white.

Bucknor explained that the soil of which it is made comes from the same area in the middle of the island as the earth used to re-lay Sabina Park. ``This match should give the players an idea of how Sabina Park will play,'' he said.

``The first match on the new square, though, suggested that this sort of clay will retain the moisture through a game. It probably started wetter than it should have done. They'll water it earlier for the Test.''

In the absence of Walsh and Rose today, the chief interest from a West Indian viewpoint will lie in the performances of the opener, the Test-hardened left-hander Robert Samuels and the little right-hander Leon Garrick, who is a possible opening partner for Sherwin Campbell.

The West Indies side for the first Test, indeed, has already more or less taken shape now that Walsh has pledged his support for Brian Lara, the new captain. The combination of Lara as captain and Walsh as opening bowler is the one which will be the most effective and the odds have shifted firmly towards the West Indies.

England have two games in which to show that they mean business and the importance of a good start in this match can hardly be exaggerated.

The West Indies Cricket Board will decide next week whether the third Test can go ahead on Guyana. Political unrest following last month's elections, the results of which are being disputed by opposition parties, has put the match in doubt.

Source: The Electronic Telegraph
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Date-stamped : 25 Feb1998 - 19:23