News Report By Neil Robinson 20/05/03
When choosing a team for the first Test match following an Ashes series in recent years, England’s selectors have invariably been faced with a clamour for change. In the run-up to Thursday’s opening Test against Zimbabwe at Lord’s, they have also been forced to deal with a renewed outbreak of the England injury jinx. The news a foot injury will keep senior paceman Andrew Caddick out until the start of the South Africa series later in the summer, was the last thing the selectors will have wanted to hear. It’s hard enough to imagine how it happened, given that England’s centrally contracted bowlers aren’t even supposed to get out of bed without direct authority from coach Duncan Fletcher and a full medical team standing by to help them down the stairs. But, for the injury to happen at a time when bowling resources are stretched to the limit, with Gough, Jones, Tudor and Silverwood all out, will have tested the patience of Chairman of Selectors David Graveney and co.
However, England’s difficulties haven’t begun or ended with Andy Caddick. A question mark was already hanging ominously over Andrew Flintoff’s participation at Lord’s, after a fall left him with a trapped nerve in the shoulder. Flintoff has been named in the squad and will be given every chance to recover, but the latest reports rate his chances as no better than “slim,” and no sooner had Matthew Hoggard received news of continued selectorial confidence, than he hobbled off the field at Northampton with a back strain, the seriousness of which remains unclear.
In the build up to the First Test, press speculation and bar-room discussions have been full of the sense of an opportunity for youth. Names have been bandied back and forth in sufficient numbers to fill three England sides, but although the naming of three uncapped players in England’s squad will have come as no surprise, the identity of two of them certainly did. After his stunning rise to fame over the Australian summer, James Anderson’s inclusion for his first Test Match was a foregone conclusion and the selectors will be glad they can call on someone of such high promise in the absence of their most experienced bowlers. James Kirtley of Sussex and Anthony McGrath of Yorkshire however, were mentioned in few dispatches before the squad was announced.
Both are fine cricketers. Kirtley is a wholehearted, enthusiastic fast-medium bowler who has made a favourable impression in his few ODI appearances to date. He has a bustling run-up and moves the ball both ways at a fair pace from a low-slung action, but the suspicion remains that he would struggle against the World’s best on flatter Test wickets. At 28 years of age, he is hardly a punt for the future either. The selectors could have gone for one of the young academy graduates, Kabir Ali or Ryan Sidebottom, both of whom have begun the season in good form, but instead they have chosen in Kirtley, a known quantity who can probably do a job for them on a Lord’s pitch likely to offer substantial movement.
Anthony McGrath’s chance at the highest level is most surprising in that it has taken so long. From the same under-19 vintage as Trescothick and Vaughan, he was considered at the time to be the most talented of the three. But, like so many of his generation, he got lost for a few years in the cruise control world of County Cricket and his career did no more than tread water until recently. Good progress in 2002 saw him rewarded with the Yorkshire captaincy, the added responsibility of which he has appeared to relish so far and he has begun the season in solid fashion. Over the last few weeks, the talk has all been of Bell, Troughton, Shafayat and Jefferson, any one of whom might have been in the frame, but it was the injury to Flintoff that seems to have settled the matter in McGrath’s favour. One of the major factors in his progress last summer, was his reinvention as something of a one-day golden-arm, taking wickets galore with dibbly-dobbly medium pacers in the style of Damien Martyn or Steve Waugh. David Graveney said he could see McGrath taking on the role of fifth bowler, together with Mark Butcher, in Flintoff’s absence. It is the role Paul Collingwood might have expected to fill had injury not afflicted his season too. Whatever his role in the side, this ruddy-cheeked, compact right hander who goes by the nickname of ‘Mags’ and has something of a reputation as a prankster, should bring a smile to the England dressing room.
The injuries to Flintoff and Hoggard, may well end up determining the composition of the final eleven on the morning of the scheduled forst day’s play. England have a habit of going in to these early season Tests with a four pronged pace attack, something they almost paid for dearly twelve months ago against Sri Lanka, when an unexpectedly flat pitch and an unseasonal heatwave favoured the visitors more than the hosts. The weather in England over the last fortnight has been wet and cold and Lord’s has been something of a seamer’s paradise in the early weeks of the season. Fortunately, Ashley Giles is in the squad to provide some left arm spin variety and in the absence of Caddick, his experience may be viewed as essential, whatever the nature of the pitch.
This was the first England squad to be chosen by the new four man panel of Graveney, Fletcher, Geoff Miller and former Aussie keeper Rodney Marsh. Given the input of Marsh, director of the ECB academy and a man not known for keeping his opinions to himself, the absence from the squad of all but two of his young charges (Anderson and Harmison) and in particular the widely expected decision to stick with Alec Stewart rather than going for Chris Read or James Foster behind the stumps is notable. One wonders how closely the final squad resembles Marsh’s own preferences. Most of the youngsters will have to wait a bit longer, but for James Anderson, there is a first chance to shine on a stage he should come to know very well. For James Kirtley and Anthony McGrath, there is an opportunity they may have thought had passed them by. For England there is a long summer ahead, beginning with two Tests against a weakened and embattled opposition who ought to be beaten.
So what, then, of Zimbabwe? On their last tour of England three years ago, they were hustled out quickly twice on a greenish Lord’s wicket, before rallying strongly to have the better of a draw at Trent Bridge. Since then they have found themselves deprived of the services of Murray Goodwin, Neil Johnson, Andy Flower, Henry Olonga and Alistair Campbell, among others. For a small nation with a thin bedrock of talent such losses must hit particularly hard. A further blow in the form of a back injury suffered by captain Heath Streak, could have added to the despair during Zimbabwe’s warm-up matches, but thankfully Streak appears to be making a good recovery and should be fit for Lord’s. In the absence of so many senior players from their last tour, Zimbabwe’s team has an unfamiliar look for many fans here. Even seasoned observers find themselves shrugging their shoulders when asked about Raymond Price or Barney Rogers. But, the team has a determined skipper in Streak and a wily coach in former Aussie Test batsman Geoff Marsh, so should not be underestimated.
Zimbabwe’s preparation so far has been notable mostly for a thrilling tied match at Worcester and for the fact their rain-affected game at Hove, became the very first first-class match in England to benefit from artificial lighting. However, artificial dryness would have been handy too! On the field Mark Vermeulen has been in good form with the bat, Douglas Hondo has taken wickets with the ball and Tatenda Taibu has looked smart behind the stumps. Explosive all-rounder Andy Blignaut has yet to fire, but he has the aura of a big match player, so perhaps that’s not surprising. The political fuss which greeted the tourists on their arrival has gone slightly quiet, but demonstrations are expected outside the Grace Rd gates on Thursday. Hopefully the real excitement will be inside the ground.
England Squad for the Lord’s Test:
It is expected the final team to take the field will be announced on the morning of the first day’s play, scheduled for Thursday 22 May.