| Rival captains Heath Streak (left) and Nasser Hussain with the NPower Trophy at Lord’s Wednesday, the eve of the first Test. (Reuters)
London: Zimbabwe may be the underdogs for Thursday’s first Test against England at Lord’s but the tide could yet be turning in the Africans’ favour.
England will go into the opening match of this two-Test series with one of their most inexperienced attacks of recent years.
Injuries to pacemen Andy Caddick and Darren Gough in the build-up to this match were compounded Tuesday when allrounder Andrew Flintoff withdrew with a shoulder injury.
Craig White and Paul Collingwood, both candidates to replace Flintoff, were already out of contention because of injury, hence the call-up of the previously uncapped Anthony McGrath, a decision born of desperation as much as any faith in the Yorkshire captain’s abilities.
Fast bowler Matthew Hoggard, however, has been declared fit. England captain Nasser Hussain told a news conference on Wednesday that he “is available for selection”.
Hussain must decide whether to go into the game with an all-seam attack or opt for spinner Ashley Giles. “If you believe there will be five days of cricket, in those conditions you need a spinner,” said Hussain. “If you feel it’s not going to be a full game, you might not.”
Hussain said he expected England to win the two-match series, despite being without Caddick and Flintoff.
“Even with injuries, we should expect to win but only if you are thoroughly professional,” he said. “Anything less and we could come unstuck. They have a lot of character in their side. We should play well in these conditions but there are two sides in the equation.”
Much will rest on the shoulders of 20-year-old Lancashire quick James Anderson who is all set to make his Test debut after impressing in England’s one-day tri-series in Australia and at the World Cup. But other likely members of England’s attack come with health warnings attached.
Durham’s Steve Harmison is genuinely quick and, because of his height, can get awkward bounce. Nevertheless it’s often anyone’s guess, including it seems Harmison’s, as to whether he can bowl a straight delivery.
Also in England’s squad is James Kirtley who, unfortunately for the Sussex seamer, is known primarily for having a suspect action which was reported to international cricket chiefs.
Yet the departures suffered by Zimbabwe since they last played in England three years ago put England’s current problems into perspective.
Back in 2000, Zimbabwe had top order batsmen Murray Goodwin, Alistair Campbell, Andy Flower and allrounder Neil Johnson in their team — and still England beat them by an innings and 209 runs in the first Test at Lord’s.
All have since quit the international stage with Andy and paceman Henry Olonga the latest departures following their black armband protest against Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe at the World Cup.
Of those that remain only Grant Flower has a Test hundred to his name, while captain and fast bowler Heath Streak is the only player in the party to have taken more than 50 wickets at this level.
They at least have some experience of the seam-bowling friendly conditions prevalent at Lord’s in May which are likely to be unfamiliar to most of their teammates.
Zimbabwe’s off-spinning allrounder Douglas Marillier has more reason than most to hope the game passes off uninterrupted. Back in 1994 Marillier, then 16, was involved in a car crash that left him with two broken legs and fears that he might never walk again let alone play cricket.
England (from): Nasser Hussain (captain), James Anderson, Mark Butcher, Ashley Giles, Stephen Harmison, Matthew Hoggard, Robert Key, James Kirtley, Anthony McGrath, Alec Stewart, Marcus Trescothick, Michael Vaughan.
Zimbabwe (from): Heath Streak (captain), Tatenda Taibu, Grant Flower, Dion Ebrahim, Mark Vermeulen, Barney Rogers, Sean Ervine, Andy Blignaut, Mluleki Nkala, Stuart Carlisle, Raymond Price, Travis Friend, Vusimuzi Sibanda, Douglas Hondo.