CENTRAL CONTRACTS might be essential for the future health of English cricket, but they have also spoiled a great deal of fun. Not so long ago, before the bright idea dawned that a touch of continuity might benefit the international side, it was a traditional and compulsive pastime to guess what cock-up the selectors might make next.
As a general rule, this no longer applies. Those awarded contracts are bound to play, so the team are known long before the official announcement at the customary time of 11am on Sunday. Fortunately, this is England, which means that the system is not perfect.
Only 12 players were awarded contracts in March, two of whom are now injured. That leaves just 10. The choice for the First Test against Pakistan at Lord's on Thursday, which is also the inaugural match in the rolling official World Test Championship, is further complicated because only six of those are specialist batsmen. Pitch conditions will almost certainly determine that seven are necessary.
The upshot is that two places are left on which the selectors might benefit from the public's advice on how best to tackle the opening, tricky assignment of a busy summer. Given that the days of awarding two caps to a player and then ditching him are probably over (at least until the next time), it is important to be right. Selectors have to start earning their money instead of deciding they were wrong and taking another stab in the dark.
Lose this two-match series against Pakistan and the dream of the Ashes could turn to dust even earlier than usual. If that sounds unnecessarily downbeat after England's recent achievements, it is crucial nothing is taken for granted. Their four consecutive series wins have all been tight and the last three have depended on their winning the final Test. They are persevering and resilient; they are not rampant.
The extra batsman and the spare seam bowler were the main items on the selectorial agenda yesterday. Neither presents a straightforward option. Both represent an opportunity to demonstrate that those running the team have the future in mind. The past should be a foreign and especially unpleasant country.
Nasser Hussain, the England captain, was keeping his cards so close to his chest yesterday that he was in danger of suffocation. However, before his final discussion with the coach, Duncan Fletcher, and the chairman of selectors, David Graveney, he conceded what their thought processes were.
"We're looking for a seventh batsman," he said on the Channel 4 Roadshow. "But we're not tying our hands. We'll look at the wicket and then make a decision. With Ashley Giles being injured, the spin choice in the squad is likely to be Robert Croft." The only other player he mentioned specifically was Ian Ward, the Surrey opener, but then only to agree that he was one of those "being looked at". If England A tours are to mean anything, Ward would be the obvious choice. He was easily their leading batsman in the Busta Cup in West Indies earlier this year, and is in form this season.
If only it were so simple. As an opener, one school of thought is that he would have difficulty in waiting around to bat at seven (or perhaps six if it is decided the time really has come to bat Alec Stewart in the proper wicketkeeper-batsman's position). It is also being pointed out that he is 28 and thus hardly in the first flush of batting youth if England are looking for the next generation. …