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May 21, 2011
More than four months after completing England's finest achievement in many years by retaining the Ashes 3-1 in Australia, the majority of Andrew Strauss's Test squad will reconvene for the first match of summer which, if it goes well, will put England on course for the No. 1 ranking.
Nine of the team that completed the innings-and-83-run victory in Sydney will line-up in Cardiff to face Sri Lanka. The two who won't be there are the retired Paul Collingwood and the injured Tim Bresnan and their replacements have been the only real debates for the selectors ahead of naming a 12-man squad.
There has been plenty of time to consider who will fill Collingwood's shoes in the middle order and the signs point strongly to Ravi Bopara. He didn't make the most of his first innings for the Lions in Derby when he fell for 17, but the feeling is that the decision had already been made. That also means that Eoin Morgan's 193 came too late, although it was a commanding innings that showed his immense natural ability.
Bopara, though, has gained credit for the decisions he has made in recent months, most notably declining two IPL offers to remain with Essex. After overcoming a tricky start to the season he has made two Championship hundreds and, importantly, bowled plenty of overs to develop his second-string.
Meanwhile, Morgan played nine Twenty20 innings over six weeks but then waltzed into the Lions and looked as though he'd been playing first-class cricket for months. In many ways it would have made the selectors' job easier had Morgan failed (or at least not scored a near double hundred). Morgan has now indicated he will return to the IPL if he isn't selected in the Test squad, a move that could well raise a few eyebrows. He will look particularly bad if someone breaks a finger on Wednesday and he's back in India.
The choice of pace-bowling cover could be one of a few impressive performers from the early stages of the domestic season. Given that Bresnan's Ashes role was to pitch the ball up and find swing, Ajmal Shahzad is the likeliest option and has impressed the selectors with his work ethic over the winter. It shows the depth currently available that Steven Finn, who played three Ashes Tests and all of last summer, has slipped down the pecking order.
Below those two the return of Graham Onions is being very closely monitored although it would be dangerous to rush him back too soon from such a serious injury, while Jade Dernbach is making significant strides as he showed with 5 for 44 against the Sri Lankans.
It all means that none of the pace bowlers who do play can afford to coast. The most under pressure could well be Stuart Broad, England's new Twenty20 captain, as he returns to the Test side after injury. Firstly he has to show his body isn't becoming brittle, but also that he can contribute significant hauls. Currently he has 99 Test wickets at 35, a number that has to start coming down.
The other player with plenty of eyes on him will be Kevin Pietersen. After recovering from his double hernia he has played two matches for Surrey (one an innings defeat against Cambridge University) and it's a crucial summer for him if he really wants to regain his standing as England's premier batsman. The selectors showed they were willing to drop him from the one-day side last year and Andy Flower isn't one to accept passengers.
Possible squad Andrew Strauss (capt), Alastair Cook, Jonathan Trott, Kevin Pietersen, Ian Bell, Ravi Bopara, Matt Prior (wk), Stuart Broad, Graeme Swann, Chris Tremlett, James Anderson, Ajmal Shahzad
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