Match Preview by Neil Robinson 20/07/03
After an absence of two long years, Darren Gough is set to make a remarkable Test comeback following his selection in England’s twelve man squad for the First Test against South Africa at Edgbaston on July 24.
Gough’s selection is one of two changes from the squad which beat Zimbabwe at Chester-le-Street, Andrew Flintoff also coming back in place of Robert Key. Alec Stewart has again fought off the challenge of Chris Read, while, more unexpectedly, no place has been found for Graham Thorpe despite his recent declaration of intent.
Gough last played Test cricket against Australia during the 2001 Ashes Series. He subsequently opted out of the winter tour of India, and so was only considered for the one-day series in New Zealand two months later. It was during that series that he picked up the serious knee injury which looked certain to end his career. His effervescent performances in the recent NatWest series showed beyond doubt that Gough is still capable of performing at the very highest level, but his long term fitness is far from certain. His knee problem is not cured, but managed through a rigorous daily routine. He remains worryingly short of first-class match practice. Physio Wayne Morton recently estimated that Gough could still have three to four years of top level cricket in him, but this calculation was based on the assumption that he would play either Test or one-day cricket, not both. A tough decision may lie ahead for him if he makes it through this series unscathed. Gough himself is typically confident that he will come through.
The selectors’ willingness to take a risk with Gough was probably aided by the continuing fitness problems affecting Richard Johnson. Following his spectacular Test debut against Zimbabwe, Johnson has been plagued by groin problems and was considered unfit for this match. Had Johnson been fit, the selectors would have found it hard to drop him in favour of Gough, a choice mirrored somewhat in the decision to stick with Anthony McGrath despite the increasing press clamour for the return of Graham Thorpe. The selectors said that they accepted Thorpe’s assertion that he was fully fit and mentally focused on playing Test cricket again, but found McGrath’s case for retention too hard to ignore. While the presence of Thorpe would undoubtedly bolster England’s middle order, it would have been awfully tough on McGrath, after notching a 60 and an 80 in his first two knocks. It would be hard to understand as a long term measure as well. With only two years to go before England face the Aussies again, now must be the time to start identifying the players who can regain the Ashes. To have an England middle order reading Butcher, Hussain, Thorpe, Stewart would leave no place available for a younger batsman, and, strong as it looks on paper, even if all four men were available to play in 2005, it is a line up which has been tried, tested and failed in all previous outings against the old enemy.
The case for Gough is slightly less complicated. His place in the team still leaves room for Anderson and Harmison and will surely help those two youngsters learn even more quickly. Certainly there is an element of risk in selecting him, more cautious minds may well have preferred to wait while he got a few more four day county games under his belt. But this would probably have been a waste. Gough is never going to get any fitter, so we may as well see whether he is capable of lasting through a five day Test Match now. This will be hard work for him no doubt, and harder still if he makes it through to the Second Test which starts at Lord’s after just a two day break. Back to back Tests are tough on players, but this should at least provide a full Test of Gough’s long term prospects. Captain Nasser Hussain may also be glad of an extended session with his men following their time under Michael Vaughan’s leadership during the one-day series.
South Africa, meanwhile, will be looking to make a quick return to form following their disappointing defeat in the final of the NatWest Series. There have been some promising signs in their first warm up match against Somerset, not least from young pace star Monde Zondeki, who bagged five good wickets on a pitch renowned for its flatness. Test specialists Neil McKenzie and Boeta Dippenaar also performed well with the bat.
In former years, the prospect of a Test at Edgbaston would produce predictions of a seamer’s pitch and a low scoring game. But times have changed in Birmingham. Since the disposal of the famous ‘brumbrella’ cover, the groundstaff have found it much easier to produce good grass growth and prevent the pitch from cracking without overwatering. Conditions this season have been much better for batsmen, which could make for a tough game for old stagers like Gough and ex-Warwickshire man Shaun Pollock. Whatever the state of the pitch, 22 men and thousands of avid spectators will be raring to go on Thursday morning, when this long awaited series, billed as the battle for the second slot among Test nations, gets underway.
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