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August 21, 2002
An unknown England line-up, and unknown Indian frame of mind and an unknown pitch quality make just a little difficult to predict the outcome of the third npower Test starting in Leeds tomorrow. However, Headingley has proved to be a happy hunting ground for England in recent years and with a win at Lord's and the better of the draw at Trent Bridge, there is every indication that the home side might be able to force home their advantage to secure the series before going to The Oval for the final Test of a long summer.
In the past, there has been little doubt about what to do about selection for a Headingley Test. Pack the side with seamers, pay close attention to the weather forecast and try to win the match while cloud cover makes the ball do extraordinary things on a pitch not noted for its good behaviour in such conditions. Those plans can sometimes go awry when the sun shines, the surface becomes totally benign and the ball races over a quick outfield to all parts. You do not often get boring cricket at Headingley.
There is a suggestion that the square has been playing a bit differently this year and the old propensity for uneven bounce has been eliminated. Whether this new-found quality extends to the Test strip has yet to be discovered, as even chairman of selectors David Graveney admitted when announcing the 13-man squad.
"Although we have talked to counties who have played at Headingley this summer, we don't yet have an inkling as to what sort of surface has been prepared for this Test match. We will have to assess the wicket and think about what impact it will have on our selection."
There is growing speculation that left-arm spinner Ashley Giles might reverse the trend of recent history by being included in the final eleven. He was left out at Trent Bridge in favour of five seamers, leaving only the occasional off-spin of Michael Vaughan to exploit the turn that was evident in Nottingham. Giles can put a brake on scoring, especially on a ground where a little nudge against the quicker bowlers can and usually does result in four runs down the hill.
Andrew Caddick will return to the side after injury and to the scene of his remarkable triumph against the West Indies two years ago when his four wickets in an over wrapped it all up in a couple of days. Matthew Hoggard will open the bowling, with Caddick, on his home ground but after that it all becomes a little problematical. Steve Harmison might be retained after a no more than promising debut at Trent Bridge. In the absence of the injured Craig White, Alex Tudor might be preferred for his extra batting potential as well as his bowling ability, while the hernia injury under which Andrew Flintoff is labouring could open the door for yet another chance for Dominic Cork.
In the batting department, England are unlikely to make changes with another opportunity for Robert Key to open the batting with the in-form Vaughan, allowing Mark Butcher to bat at three on the ground where he played such a memorable match-winning innings against Australia last year. With Nasser Hussain at four, John Crawley at five, probably Flintoff at six and then Alec Stewart, there is a settled solidity. This all assumes that Flintoff is going to be fit enough to play, albeit as merely a batsman.
Despite all the forecasts and fanfares for the Indian batting, it has not performed consistently as a cohesive unit in the series so far. Shiv Sunder Das did his chances of replacing Wasim Jaffer as an opener no harm with an innings of 250 against Essex in the last tour match at Chelmsford. Virender Sehwag got a substantial hundred in that match as well, but it will need the big guns of Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Sourav Ganguly and VVS Laxman to all fire to give the captain a chance of manipulating his bowling resources to full effect.
That is another area for interesting speculation. If Anil Kumble is fit, will he come into the side to partner Harbhajan Singh? Or to replace him? Will India give a chance to Tinu Yohannan? Might he replace Ashish Nehra or supplement him? Will Ajit Agarkar's batting insulate him from the axe that his bowling might have attracted? And while we are asking questions that time alone will answer, did young Parthiv Patel do enough at Trent Bridge to retain the wicket-keeping spot in front of fit again Ajay Ratra?
There is another question mark lurking around the Indian dressing room. That comes in the form of the distraction from the job in hand that might have resulted from the ongoing contracts row concerning the ICC Champions Trophy tournament and then the World Cup. The players have expressed the view that they are unable to agree to the terms of the contracts and therefore could drop out of the Indian squad for the tournament. Other sides, including England, are involved, but the focus of attention has centred on the Indians.
They will, of course, vehemently deny that this sideshow has any bearing on their preparations for the Test. However, these are intelligent men who will have realised that what they are talking about here is the possibility of a serious breach in the unity of world cricket. It would be asking a lot of them to be able to put it all to the back of their minds and, one-nil down and a long way from home at the end of an arduous tour, simply concentrate on preparing for a crucial Test.