August 6, 2003

Don't panic!

One-nil down with three to go. It's not that bad, is it? Well, after a lacklustre losing draw and an abysmal innings defeat, the England selectors will no doubt think it is. However, as the four wise men ponder their options for the third npower Test at Trent Bridge, and Michael Vaughan has more time to prepare to lead his own team, rather than Nasser Hussain's, one message they should take on board is, don't panic.

Considering the trend of the series so far, and if you except the first-innings shambles at Lord's - the batting department is fairly settled. Hussain has dimissed speculation that he is about to hang up his boots by making himself available for the next Test, much to the support of David Graveney, the chairman of selectors.

But it is, however, crying out for one major tweak. The selectors have made their point over not letting Graham Thorpe waltz back in to the side, but now they have to swallow their pride and just get him in there. Vaughan, and the whole of England rate him highly, and even if it is harsh on Vaughan's Yorkshire mucker Anthony McGrath, that's tough. McGrath did well against Zimbabwe, but playing South Africa is a whole different ball game. Even though he can bowl useful outswingers and even keep wicket as he showed at Lord's, England don't need versatility, they need stability.

Alec Stewart will continue to give them his usual 110 per cent which footballers talk of, even though there were hints at Lord's that he is starting to lose his sharpness. He unluckily copped one in the eye - thankfully he doesn't wear glasses yet - and followed that up with a few uncharacteristic fumbles and a missed catch. However, it is unlikely that Vaughan will want to be deprived of another rock in the team after Darren Gough's departure, so Chris Read should be made to wait at least one Test longer.

The bowling is a whole different kettle of fish, and at Lord's most of the bowlers performed with the memory of one, forgetting the basics of line and length on a good batting pitch. Gough has saved the selectors one tricky decision, but they have two more concerning James Anderson and Steve Harmison.

Anderson's golden-boy status has started to slip slowly into the red, like his hair. He has taken 3 for 219 in the last two Tests and for the first time in his brief comet-like international career, he is short of confidence. Dropping him would plunge his self-esteem even lower, and he deserves to keep his place and prove he can recultivate those wicket-taking jaffas. Harmison has even worse series figures (3 for 241), and though he has still has not convinced that he can constantly channel his extreme pace into controlled aggression, he is the quickest bowler on both sides and England need to stick with him and watch him improve.

And who might replace them? The leading candidates - Matthew Hoggard, Simon Jones and Alex Tudor - are not fully fit, which leaves the likes of perennial squad-filler James Kirtley, Jimmy Ormond and Martin Bicknell. With Gough gone it would be too risky to play another new seamer, and Anderson and Harmison should by now have worked out not to bowl short or on leg stump to Graeme Smith. Gough's place should go to Richard Johnson, who is back from his injuries and did well in his two Tests against Zimbabwe - and not least that because he has a canny knack of taking a wicket in his first over. Graeme Smith take note.

Under Duncan Fletcher, England have made huge strides forward, mainly due to their new team ethos which has been built on continuity and harmony, rather than the manic chopping and changing in of the dark days of the 1990s. So let's keep it that way.

Probable XI 1 Marcus Trescothick, 2 Michael Vaughan (capt), 3 Mark Butcher, 4 Nasser Hussain, 5 Graham Thorpe, 6 Alec Stewart (wk), 7 Andrew Flintoff, 8 Ashley Giles, 9 Richard Johnson, 10 Steve Harmison, 11 James Anderson.