Match Preview by Neil Robinson 03/06/03
It is 101 years since Bramall Lane in Sheffield, became England's seventh Test match venue. Later this week an eighth will finally emerge in the form of the picturesque Riverside ground at Chester-le-Street in County Durham.
It can only be a tribute to the ambition of England's newest first-class County that, a mere eight years since staging its initial first-class game, the Riverside has achieved the ultimate distinction among cricket grounds. But then, the North-East of England is no stranger to sporting ambition of the greatest degree.
This remote corner of the country has long felt itself apart from the rest of England, at times feeling more common ground with its Scottish neighbours than supposed compatriots in faraway London. As a result, its people take a great pride in those things, which give it its greatest sense of identity and separateness, notably its sporting teams. Most famous among these must be the two great football sides, Newcastle United, whose massive St. James' Park stadium dominates the skyline of the region's largest city, and their great rivals Sunderland.
But, more than this, the region has also produced great rugby union teams, such as the famous Gosforth side who won the cup three times in the 1970ís in addition to great athletes such as Jonathon Edwards and Steve Cram.
The fact cricket has not always been so closely associated with the North-East until now is not because of any lack of support for the game there. Indeed, some of the strongest club leagues in the country operate there, but solely because of the fact that until the granting of first-class status to Durham in 1992, this beautiful part of the world, of which I am proud to call myself a native, was largely ignored by the game's professional establishment.
It produced its fair share of cricketers, Colin Milburn and Peter Willey spring to mind, but while professional football clubs all over the land scoured the north-east for their young talent, the equal abundance of talented young cricketers had a much longer, tougher route into their game's professional structure. All that has changed, with the likes of Collingwood, Harmison and young bloods like Nicky Peng, Gary Pratt, Gordon Muchall coming through, the North-East is finally beginning to display its true potential.
The beginning of their first Test Match this coming Thursday, will be a proud moment for this proudest of peoples. It is to be hoped that the notoriously fallible northern weather will permit a rare week of unbroken sunshine in which to enjoy it.
Following their comprehensive victory at Lord's, England's selectors have understandably chosen to tinker with the squad as little as possible. Andrew Flintoff and Matthew Hoggard are missing through injury, so the Somerset fast bowler Richard Johnson earns a place following good form and uncharacteristically good fitness at the start of the season. Johnson has never been the luckiest of cricketers. He was first named in the England squad to tour South Africa in 1995-96, only to withdraw through injury. Not until 2000 did he make it back into the reckoning, but even then he found himself left out of the final XI each time he made it into the squad.
If James Kirtley, as expected, takes Hoggard's place in the final XI, Johnson may find himself on the sidelines once more.
If the Test squad provided few surprises, the announcement of the squad for England's ODI programme this summer came with plenty of talking points. No fewer than six uncapped players made the cut and, looking down the list, even James Anderson's tally of 14 caps make him look like a senior pro. Those six were Test batsmen Robert Key and Anthony McGrath, Worcestershire's fast bowling tyro Kabir Ali, Warwickshire's hard -hitting left-hander Jim Troughton, Surrey all-rounder Rikki Clarke and the aformentioned Richard Johnson. There was also a recall for Darren Gough, whose experience could be vital in such a green squad and who will have been encouraged by coming unscathed through two one-day games in four days for Yorkshire last week.
If it is hard to see Gough lasting out a Test right now, his return to the one-day side must surely be justified by his magnificent record and continued enthusiasm. It will be good to see him back. Worcestershire's stylish right-hand batsman Vikram Solanki also earns a recall, as does Nottinghamshire's keeper Chris Read.
Missing out were Matthew Hoggard, omitted even before the selectors learned of the injury, which will keep him out of this week's Test. Ian Blackwell, who will need to shed a few pounds and gain in mobility before earning a recall, and James Kirtley, despite his likely Test debut this week.
There can't be many players who have been dropped from the one-day side and picked for their Test debut within seven days. If Kirtley isn't to be made twelfth man again at Chester-le-Street, that is. Equally interesting is the selection of Chris Read as wicket-keeper. Having just broken a finger four days before the squad was announced and expected to be out for three weeks,Read's fitness will be a borderline decision. It is a testament to the regard in which he is held, that he has been granted his chance anyway. If he does not come through in time, Essex's James Foster will take his place.
RJ Kirtley, JS Foster and GJ Batty are on stand by.