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January 1, 2014
Borthwick ready for Aussie onslaught
England will make the first tentative steps into a new age as they reach the final Test in Sydney with the series long gone and a growing acceptance that the team that has served them so well needs refreshing.
To that end, Scott Borthwick looks set to become the first legspinner capped by England since Ian Salisbury was recalled against Pakistan in December 2000, a brief flirtation with leg spin which also saw Chris Schofield play two Tests earlier that year.
The fast bowler Boyd Rankin and the middle-order batsman Garry Ballance are also pushing for inclusion. If all three play, it will be the first time England have had three debutants in the same Test since Nagpur in March 2006 when Monty Panesar, Ian Blackwell and Alastair Cook all won their first caps.
It would complete a rapid rise to prominence for Borthwick. He had been due to return to the UK on Monday having played Grade cricket in Sydney - he played alongside Brad Haddin in one game - and is still due on the Lions tour of Sri Lanka in March. Now, at 23, he is going to be given the opportunity of filling the rather large shoes of Graeme Swann.
England are asking a great deal. With 28 wickets at 38 apiece in the last Championship season, Borthwick was 14th in the Durham bowling averages. While his batting was a revelation - promoted to No. 3 from No. 8 he scored 1,022 Championship runs - he is being picked more with a view to his spin bowling than his batting. He will, however, stiffen the tail - he could well bat at No. 8 - and improve England's fielding.
The experience of Simon Kerrigan is a concern. Kerrigan, who has a significantly better first-class bowling record than Borthwick (a bowling average of 26.68 compared to 31.29, albeit on generally more helpful Old Trafford surfaces) endured a horrendous debut at The Oval at the end of the previous series after he appeared to wilt in the face of a ferocious assault from Australia's batsmen.
It seems inevitable Australia will target Borthwick in the same manner, with Haddin, described as "a good fella" by Borthwick, suggesting the young legspinner will be "monstered".
"Leg-spin is hard," Borthwick admitted phlegmatically on Wednesday. "You've got to accept you are going to bowl bad balls, and blokes are going to come after you. You've got to a bit of fight, try to get competitive and spin the ball past them. When batters do come at you, it gives you a chance to get wickets."
Whether he plays as the main spinner or fulfils a role alongside Monty Panesar, who has reportedly been complaining of a tight calf, or even James Tredwell remains to be seen. The days when Sydney offered much turn are gone, so England could utilise Joe Root, who out-bowled Panesar in Melbourne, as the second spinner.
The relative success of Ben Stokes might yet be remembered as the only light amid the gloom of this series for England. While his century at Perth was the most memorable of his achievements, he has also shown burgeoning ability with the ball. Again, it would be a big ask, but he could be used as one of only three seamers if England feel the need to play two spinners.
If Rankin plays it is likely to be in place of Tim Bresnan and if Ballance plays it is likely to be instead of Michael Carberry. That would necessitate Root moving back up to the opening position - his third batting position of the series - and might well see Ian Bell promoted to the No. 3 position. Root has already batted in every position between two and seven in his 15 Tests and the dropping of Carberry, like the dropping of Nick Compton before him, would be an admission of failure on the behalf of the selectors.
Ballance looks a fine prospect. While he arrived on the tour carrying more weight than might be expected from a professional cricketer in this age, he scored 1,251 Championship runs in the 2013 season and has a first-class average of 53.33. The fact that he is Zimbabwe born will provoke some, although he was schooled in England, but of more relevance is the fact that he appears to have a solid game without obvious faults and, aged 24, could play a role for much of the next decade.
There were some raised eyebrows when England opted to skip nets and concentrate on fielding practice on Wednesday. To some, England's performances in this series have underlined how much work they have in front of them, though in reality there is little that one more net session could do to restore the balance of power at this stage.
It may be pertinent to note that when England won the final Test of the 2002-03 series having gone into the game 4-0 down, they spent the preceding days indulging thoroughly at New Year and enjoying games of football instead of nets. Sometimes a break is of more value than another net session.
While England explore new players, it might also prove worthwhile exploring the system and the coaches that are meant to produce them.
Since Jonathan Trott made his Test debut in 2009, England have brought 13 new players into their Test side. While several, the likes of Steven Finn and James Taylor, may come again, there should be a concern that of them all, perhaps only Root and Stokes have adapted to the level with anything like comfort.
It is hard to avoid the conclusion that a gap has developed between domestic and international cricket that was not there when Matt Prior, Alastair Cook, Andrew Strauss and Trott were scoring centuries on Test debut or when Bell and Kevin Pietersen were scoring half-centuries and James Anderson was taking a five-wicket haul.
The lack of developing young spinners and fast bowlers is a particular concern. The ECB have employed specialist coaches for several years in such positions but, while national head coaches and captains are subject to great public scrutiny, those operating at developmental level seem to live a somewhat cosy life just below the radar. But it is faults at those levels that eventually weaken the national side.
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfoFeeds: George Dobell
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