Mike Holmans January 23, 2009

Anyone for cricket?

England start as favourites, a position they usually dislike but will have to learn to cope with if they are ever to fulfil their stated ambitions

What with captains resigning, bombs going off, or arguments with Stanford (whether about over-familiarity with the WAGs or huge sponsorship), there has been a deal too much off-field nonsense for both England and West Indies these last few months. We can but hope that dramas in the forthcoming series are confined to the field of play.

England start as favourites, a position they usually dislike but will have to learn to cope with if they are ever to fulfil their stated ambitions. West Indies are near to having a very handy bowling attack, with Fidel Edwards and Jerome Taylor looking increasingly convincing and Suleiman Benn’s height making him an unfamiliar and therefore awkward sort of a spinner, but their top order is still far too dependent on Chris Gayle and the Rock of Guyana for any sort of comfort. England ought to be too strong for them, but Australia got a bit of a fright in the Caribbean last year so there will be no room for complacency.

Captain Strauss and his fellow tour selectors have three main decisions to make, so the warm-ups will be of considerable importance.

Stuart Broad’s incipient all-rounderism guarantees him one spot, which leaves two for Anderson, Steve Harmison and Ryan Sidebottom to fight over. Sidebottom is probably the one who most needs an eye-catching performance to get picked, but his prospects will rise quickly if either of the others turns up unable to bowl fast or straight.

Monty Panesar was clearly short of match practice in India but has now had some bowling in South Africa to get into shape. Further in his favour is that his best bowling for England was when Strauss was captain before: not being the greatest player of spin ever probably leads him to treat Monty with a bit more respect than Vaughan or Pietersen did. On the other hand, not every pitch is suited to a spinner who bowls at a robotic 90kph, and Graeme Swann’s experience of canny variation asked a lot of questions of the Indian batsmen before Christmas; they may only have been in a spirit of courteous enquiry rather than searching interrogation, but they were much more numerous than those which Panesar posed. Swann can also field and bat a bit, which Monty still cannot do to anything resembling the standard we ought to be able to expect. For my money, Swann did enough in India to get first crack.

Lastly, Ian Bell or Owais Shah?

Unlike Strauss or Paul Collingwood, say, Bell finds the atmosphere in the Last Chance Arms stifling rather than stimulating. It is time for the bartender to tell him he is depressing the other patrons of that convivial watering-hole and should go home.

However, Shah lacks the gravitas ideal in a number three, and making him play there has every chance of making him look a twit. Unless Collingwood has some debilitating superstition about coming in first drop, he would be a far more reassuring presence at three, leaving Shah to go in at five.

The Windies problems are not so much who should be picked as how to get them all to play well at once, and the main obstacle to it is their lack of experience. The first stage in rebuilding a side is to become hard to beat, but they are still some way off. But if they make progress towards that, this should be an interesting series.

Let’s just hope we can spend the next few weeks talking about cricket rather than whether Andy Flower ate breakfast alone because everyone hates him.