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June 5, 2014
No real surprises in young England Test squad
England's post-Pietersen era, unveiled in Test cricket for the first time, has a serious and well-planned look about it. From the chaos of an Ashes hounding, England's selectors have managed to produce a squad that seems entirely logical. The new order is not just new, it is also extremely orderly.
There is no pin sticking in England's 12 for the first Test against Sri Lanka at Lord's, no sense of floundering around as there would have been a generation ago. Three uncapped players - Moeen Ali, Chris Jordan and Sam Robson - all seem carefully introduced and worthy of selection.
Pietersen himself might remark on a shortage of batting flair. This is a side that will seek to bat long and responsibly.
Liam Plunkett might be regarded as a bit of a punt - nobody can be entirely sure how he will respond to his first Test call up for seven years - but he has been bowling consistently quickly for Yorkshire and, at 29, should have enough experience to cope with the additional pressure a Test summons will bring.
Sam Robson is the baby of the squad, but even he is approaching his 25th birthday and his move through the England ranks has been so well planned, and his own approach to batting is so methodical, that his first Test call up as Alastair Cook's opening partner seems entirely sagacious. "Lovely lad, fit, focused, disciplined," was how the chief selector James Whitaker put it. And five hundreds for England's development sides last winter.
An old stager returns, too, in Matt Prior, an Ashes vice-captain who was dispensed with for the final two Tests in Australia but who returns as Cook's dressing-room sergeant major. Prior is perhaps England's biggest gamble. They were desperate to select him and it would have needed Sussex's regular medical updates to warn that they had had to install a stair lift outside the Hove dressing room for him to be discounted.
A return to classier wicketkeepers of a certain age - the excellent James Foster prime among them - have been discounted. This selection team is not revolutionary. Such selections, as persuasive as they seem to onlookers, can disturb dressing room morale. Random = dangerous.
Whitaker insisted that England had no qualms about Prior. "Our No. 1 priority for selection criteria is that someone is 100% fit," he said. "Very few people go through their international career without a little bit of a blip. Matt is no different. He comes back as just the sort of character we want in that team."
Nevertheless, Prior's season with Sussex has been severely disrupted by his long-standing weakness in both Achilles and what little wicketkeeping he has had has reflected as much. He has only batted three times in the Championship, but from the moment he made the first Championship hundred of the season in early April - 125 against Middlesex at Hove - the selectors, with full encouragement from the captain, Cook, knew the course they wished to take.
Casual observers, in particular, will regret the omission of Jos Buttler, who has lifted England's mood like no other player this season, but his keeping remains rudimentary and it is best that he is allowed to address it. Prior will have to put his body - and reputation - on the line.
If England felt obliged to gamble on Prior, they took the opposite view on Ben Stokes. Only two Championship matches was not enough to gain selection. "Ben Stokes is very much part of England's future, but with barely 30 overs under his belt we want to see him bowl more overs and get more stamina into his body," Whitaker said.
Stokes, at least, does not seem to have suffered long-term damage from thumping a dressing room locker; it is to be hoped that England took the precaution of covering every hard surface in County Durham in foam rubber before advising him of his omission.
There are only seven survivors from that fateful Ashes squad. To run through some of the names in England's last Test, against Australia in Sydney, is to recognise the extent of the changes: there is no Jonny Bairstow, Boyd Rankin, Scott Borthwick, Michael Carberry.
Graeme Swann has retired, Monty Panesar, muddle-headed, needs to regain trust before he will be considered as a permanent replacement and, while any right-thinking person should wish Jonathan Trott well in his attempts to return to the professional game, England's attention seems to have turned elsewhere. From England's rock to a hard place in no time at all.
No player is more unfortunate to miss out than Samit Patel; even the presence of his Nottinghamshire coach, Mick Newell, on the selection panel has not been enough to win him recognition. England are more bent upon Moeen Ali, even though Moeen's runs have been made in Division Two, understandably believing that Moeen's offspin is more serviceable than Patel's left-arm slows, or indeed the leg spin of Borthwick.
There was an argument for Patel's inclusion at No. 5, but England's selectors have chosen a top five of serious intent. Gary Ballance, a nuggety cricketer, gets the vote alongside his Yorkshire team-mate Joe Root. Patel, or indeed Eoin Morgan, might have added some flair to the England batting line-up in the absence of Pietersen, but Morgan's form in both short game and long has been middling after he chose to miss the IPL to push his England Test claims. Morgan might quickly revert to the conclusion that he is essentially a one-day specialist.
Yorkshire's coaching staff, as Whitaker was quick to indicate, have worked wonders with Plunkett. Martyn Moxon, who knew Plunkett at Durham, had enough faith in his skill to advocate his signature when Durham released him in October 2012; Jason Gillespie cleared his head again, encouraged him to make use of his physique by bowling fast, and his ability to bowl occasional unplayable balls has once again come to the fore.
It is the nature of things that Yorkshire have been so successful with Plunkett that their Championship challenge could now be undermined as a result, so it was refreshing to hear Whitaker recognise the good that can be done at county level - a necessary shifting of the relationship that deteriorated during the tenures of two southern African coaches, Duncan Fletcher and Andy Flower; Fletcher, in particular, regarded the county game as a repository of slack habits and spent as little time observing it as he could.
"Well done to Martyn Moxon and Jason Gillespie and all the guys at Yorkshire who have made Liam successful," Whitaker said. "They have asked him to run it and feel good and feel good in himself again. He has bowled some really quick spells, 90mph or so."
It was Plunkett's display against Durham at Chester-le-Street which gained most attention - the match was covered live on Sky - but as Whitaker pointed out that his performance against Middlesex at Lord's, venue for the first Test, was even more impressive. Plunkett outbowled Steven Finn, who at least can draw some confidence from Plunkett's own story that his own recovery of his best form is already underway.
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