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Axe hangs over England
The hosts have been getting poorer for two Tests now, so casualties are inevitable

Michael Vaughan would have begun turning names over in his mind long before South Africa took the final wicket that gave them the Lord’s Test and a 1-0 lead in the series. His team, outplayed at all times save when Andrew Flintoff gave their bowlers a late clatter, performed like ans unfocused rabble whom coach Duncan Fletcher later suggested, might have suffered from being a little bit complacent.

A little bit complacent: over two innings the top seven were dismissed nine times to poor shots, that’s 75 per cent of your run-making capacity removed due to unforced errors.

Other offences need to be taken into account, with at least six catches being spilled off a bowling attack that lacked bite or discipline. Unfortunately for the team, Fletcher appeared to have few answers for countering the malaise, at least not publicly.

“There’s no set plan to lift the guys or stop them becoming complacent,” Fletcher said Monday. “When you think they received a wake-up call after Edgbaston, it should have got them going. Maybe the guys came to Lord’s a bit relaxed having saved the first Test pretty easily.”

“We’ve come back before when we’ve lost. I remember losing the opening Test against Sri Lanka in Galle a few years ago. Everyone said that was a disaster but we came back to win 2-1. There isn’t really an answer for how to do it and you’ve just got to go on gut feeling. South Africa came back after the one-dayers, so why can’t the reverse happen'”

Perhaps Fletcher was shocked into vagueness by his team’s execrable showing at Lord’s, but if England’s football manager had come out with something so vague, after a beating one disgruntled fan likened to a 10-0 loss to Scotland at Wembley (a little over the top), he would have been strung up by the googlies.

England have been getting poorer for two Tests now, so casualties are inevitable. It would be easy to identify a new captain with the need to get rid of the previous generation, but Vaughan is unlikely to want to dispense of Nasser Hussain and Alec Stewart at once.

If they are axed and Graham Thorpe brought in, the logic becomes warped and while there is strong evidence to move Stewart on, Hussain should be given a while longer to show his class following his post-resignation blues.

Unusually for an England captain, Vaughan does not get a vote in selection though Fletcher, one of the four-man panel, does. Between them, skipper and coach must shape their vision and identify the personnel that will culminate in a competitive Ashes series in 2005. That must be the aim, if only for the good of Test cricket at large, which is becoming devalued by a spate of one-sided contests.

They have until Friday when the selectors meet to pick the side for the third Test at Trent Bridge. One section of player power they must not ignore comprises County cricketers, who mainly for reasons of age have missed playing for the Academy. Players like Ed Smith and Geraint Jones, of Kent, for example, 26 and 27 respectively, and both nestling high in the batting averages.

Having scored six hundreds in his last six matches, the Cambridge-educated Smith is in sparkling form. Last week he made the point that many County cricketers could lose heart if the selectors looked only to Academy players to fill any England vacancies, something made increasingly likely since the Academy’s director, Rod Marsh, became a selector.

Smith, who like his South Africa namesake favours the on-side, could well come in for Anthony McGrath who has struggled against South Africa, though Thorpe and Robert Key would also be vying for the spot unless the middle-order suddenly became freed up by the departure of Hussain and Stewart.

Thorpe’s batting is a known quantity but not his moods, which may be something a new captain doesn’t want to handle. Publicly, Vaughan has praised Thorpe’s class as a batsmen but has stopped short of saying he is a must have item on his shopping list. His selection would facilitate the axing of Stewart though, a role Jones is more likely to fill with runs than Chris Read.

Despite being picked in England’s one-day squad, Key is something of a forgotten man and is patently struggling with his form. He has the character but is short of confidence, a combination out of kilter with England’s aim of getting back into the series.

The pace bowling also needs a shake-up, though Flintoff’s efforts are exempt from the general mess. Although fairly hapless over the past few days, Stephen Harmison and James Anderson should be retained. Both youngsters have talent and Anderson’s swing, absent at Edgbaston and Lord’s should return amidst Trent Bridge’s high stands.

James Ormond, a one Test wonder on England’s tour of India 20 months ago, deserves another chance despite incurring Fletcher’s wrath with his idleness.

If the pitch begins dry in Nottingham, it could turn. Ashley Giles has been a stolid servant for England without ever threatening to be a match-winner. Should the selectors be tempted to replace him and they should, Worcestershire off-spinner Gareth Batty, with 35 wickets to his name, should given the chance.

Apart from turning the ball away from the leg-sided Graeme Smith, Batty can bat too, an important skill when your top-order keep chucking their wickets away.

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