| If fit, Graeme Thorpe would have been a certainty at the No. 5 slot
It is time for county cricket to prove its worth. To turn the tide in the third Test against South Africa, starting at Trent Bridge on Thursday, England’s selectors have called up two county stalwarts — Ed Smith, (26) of Kent and Glen Chapple (29) of Lancashire — as well as the sparky Academy lad and Worcestershire off-spinner, Gareth Batty.
This is the fifth Test series England have played against South Africa since the latter’s readmission, and all have followed the same pattern in that the first victory has gone to South Africa. Twice, England have failed to come back and have lost the series. Once they have bounced back to draw, once to win, and in both cases it needed a world-class performance by a senior England player, which suggests that expectations of the new three-man intake, who have yet to play a Test for England between them, should not be high.
In 1994, Devon Malcolm had to produce the bowling performance of his life, nine for 57, to overturn South Africa and level the three-Test series at 1-1. In 1998, when England were in a similar position to the one now — 0-1 down and running out of ideas — a captain’s innings of 164 by Alec Stewart, supported by Mike Atherton’s 89, saved the Old Trafford Test. Angus Fraser followed up with ten wickets in the next Test to swing the series England’s way.
South Africa’s batting must still be rated vulnerable to a collapse somewhere along the line, but only if an England pace bowler can pitch the ball up, swing it, and pin the batsmen on the crease. Of the five pace bowlers in England’s party of 13 for Nottingham, it is hard to see anyone but James Anderson doing a Malcolm or a Fraser with a match-winning performance.
As England’s selection, since Duncan Fletcher became coach, has been based on giving players a fair chance to prove themselves or fail, James Kirtley, of Sussex, is likely to win his first Test cap at last. It should come as a reward for his pace and penetration, but it will also be a tribute to his cheerful willingness to put up with being made 12th man so often, and to his fitness.
England have their own medical officer for the first time in a home summer, but the story remains the same. James Ormond, Andy Caddick and Richard Johnson all have a more dangerous stock ball than the shorter Kirtley, but all are injured, while Darren Gough retired from Test cricket last Tuesday.
Chapple’s selection must also be reckoned as, in large part, a reward for staying fit while those around him have keeled over. Worth an England A tour when he was bowling sharp out-swing in his early 20s, Chapple has since cut down his pace and turned himself into an allrounder with two centuries this season. The comparison between his first-class figures for this season — 27 wickets at 37 runs each — and his career figures, 465 wickets at 28, point all too plainly the direction in which his bowling is heading.
In the C&G Trophy semi-final at Worcester Saturday, Chapple was the most expensive of Lancashire’s seamers, although he dismissed Graeme Hick. He often bowled off a shortened run-up and was a yard or two behind Anderson and Andrew Flintoff in pace. If he plays, he will surely need Trent Bridge to prove itself a swinging ground after the construction of the latest new stand has virtually encircled it.
Batty has already represented England in one-day cricket, during the VB series in Australia last winter. His selection can be seen partly as a warning to Ashley Giles, who has only once taken more than two wickets in a Test innings in England. An off-spinner turning the ball away from left-handed batsmen can also be seen as an attempted antidote to South Africa’s captain Graeme Smith. “It doesn’t matter who it is, you’ve got to back yourself,” Batty responded cheerfully.
Batty, therefore, must have a chance of winning his first Test cap on Thursday, and if so, his contribution won’t be limited to his conventional off-spin and tail-end batting, which is on a par with Giles’ and could progress further. England badly need spark in the field, unless Michael Vaughan turns into a ranting sergeant-major overnight, and Batty’s lively fielding at cover and constant enthusiasm would go some way to improving England’s lacklustre attitude of Edgbaston and Lord’s.
Smith has been preferred to Anthony McGrath as the third new face. On behalf of the chairman of selectors David Graveney, who was ill Saturday, his co-selector Geoff Miller said: “Ed Smith is in prime form and fully deserves his chance, having hit six centuries for Kent this year. He will play in place of McGrath, who did very well against Zimbabwe but struggled a bit with his form against South Africa. He has been an excellent team man and hopefully he will resurrect his form in county cricket. He is certainly not out of our thoughts for future England team selections.”
Graham Thorpe would have been the obvious No. 5 if he had not been suffering from back spasms and the obvious first slip, too, as Marcus Trescothick won’t have recovered from his cracked finger to resume his position there, while Giles was an unsatisfactory replacement at Lord’s. It was during the Old Trafford Test of 1998 that Thorpe’s back first played up seriously. Since then, in five years, he has played only 25 Tests, a terrible waste of what should have been his prime.
Smith makes his runs more by the application of a sound mind than a prodigious talent, and his six centuries this season have mostly come on slowish pitches. As always, a Test match will be a different game when the bowlers are aiming at his head and testing his reputation against the short ball.
The promotion of Smith could also spell the end of the experiment with Robert Key, who was England’s No. 5 against Zimbabwe. Key never played an innings long enough to turn the tide of a Test match, but his big match-saving hundred against Australia A last winter stemmed some of the ridicule being aimed at England. The best sign from a batsman who has been tried and dropped by England is plenty of runs in county cricket to show he has benefited from his experience, but they have not been forthcoming so far from Key.
Unfortunately, Smith is an even more ordinary fielder than Key, which is not what England need when their spirit is so low and their catching so poor. They cannot look to a traditional source of revival either since Gough has retired. England’s selectors played double-or-quits by picking Gough from the start of this series, instead of letting him play for Yorkshire and bringing him back at Headingley. It turned out ‘quits’, with the consequent depressing effect on England’s morale.
But from one player or another, senior or debutant, Test-class thoroughbred or county stalwart, England have got to find some inspiration. Flintoff might have started the process with his 142 off 146 balls — Ajit Agarkar’s tail-end hundred at Lord’s last summer marked the moment when India began their comeback to level the series — but a match-winning performance has to come soon.
Otherwise, the next two Tests, back to back, will see England lose a series they had been almost universally fancied to win.