To drop or not to drop?
|"It was painfully apparent at Port Elizabeth that Ntini had lost his zip" © Getty Images|
Established players' careers end (or take a long break) either through retirement (whether for personal reasons or injury) or because the selectors think someone else can do the job better. Retirements take the decision out of the selectors' hands – they only have to work out how to replace what is lost; the harder call is when a dip in form signals terminal decline, or who has to be omitted to accommodate someone whose form and ability simply screams “pick me!”. Getting those decisions right is what justifies a selection panel.
England's selectors have done quite well at this recently. Andrew Flintoff's retirement was met with a lot of worry about how he would be replaced, but he was hardly missed in South Africa. There is no one specific player who replaces him, but what he brought to the team is being covered. Super Fred, the great all-rounder only really played between 2004 and 2006; thereafter, Flintoff's value to the team was as a mid-innings specialist.
An hour and a half's batting would bring 60 or 70 quick runs, demoralise the opposition bowlers and buoy the England tail so that what had looked like being a mediocre 264 turned into a healthy 380. The lack of five-fors shows that he was no destroyer, but his special gift was coming on with a 58-over-old ball and nabbing three middle-order wickets to start a slide, cutting what had bid fair to be 480 to a manageable 305.
Matt Prior, Stuart Broad and Graeme Swann have all shown themselves capable of the rumbustious cameo with the bat, and Swann and Broad are now regularly chipping in with those mid-innings spells. Between them, they usually now produce the impetus which Flintoff provided. What the selectors got right was predicting that would happen, allowing them to pick Ian Bell – much criticised at the time – whose batting was crucial to winning at Durban and drawing at Newlands.
The transition between specialist swing bowlers was also pretty smooth. When England lost the first Test on their tour of New Zealand in 2008, they took the tough decision that Matthew Hoggard should be replaced by James Anderson, who responded with a five-for and England went on to win the series. Hoggard complained bitterly for months that it had been one bad match that did for him, but the selectors have to be praised for getting it right.
South Africa's selectors, on the other hand, got it wrong in a similar situation. They really had little choice but to pick Makhaya Ntini for the first Test. Steyn was injured, and an attack of Morne Morkel, Friedel de Wet and Wayne Parnell would have been horribly inexperienced and what Ntini certainly has is experience.
However, although it was painfully apparent at Port Elizabeth that Ntini had lost his zip, his 390 career Test wickets tempted the selectors to give him the nod ahead of de Wet for Kingsmead. Strauss made mincemeat of him and set up England's big first innings total, and thus South Africa prevented themselves from winning the series as they should have.
To be fair, they have recognised that whatever fine qualities Ashwell Prince has as a No. 5 or 6, he can hardly open a beer can, let alone a Test innings, and Alviro Petersen's debut hundred has rewarded them.
For the future, the big question is how the Indian selectors are going to deal with the inevitable loss of Dravid, Laxman and Tendulkar. Will they have the courage to wield the axe when it becomes necessary, or will they leave it to them to retire? Of course, there is no point in dropping legendary players unless and until there are players ready to take over and as yet there is little sign of any serious challengers emerging, so perhaps it will not matter. But if their constant dithering about what would be a good bowling attack is anything to go by, it will be chaos.