England v West Indies, 3rd Test, Edgbaston June 6, 2012

Chance for England to showcase their depth

With off-field issues aplenty for both teams, attention could be drawn away from what should be a match with plenty of talking points

It is a sign of how times have changed in England cricket that, several days after it became clear that James Anderson was to be omitted from the squad for the third Test, the subject remained the focus of attention at Edgbaston.

There was a time, not so long ago, when the selection process in England was so chaotic that any county seamer with a pulse and bladder control had a fair chance of a call-up. During the 1989 Ashes, for example, England's desperate selectors utilised 29 players in a vain attempt to thwart Australia.

Such days have gone. England's continuity of selection has been a crucial factor in their much-improved performances and such is the settled nature of their Test side, in particular, that it is rare not to be able to predict the team from weeks in advance.

The down side to that - and to the fact that England have not unearthed a true allrounder to help balance the side - is that the burden on the best players has grown too onerous. The schedule is verging on the absurd - it will be an interesting side selected for the ODI against Scotland in August - so England have taken the pre-emptive decision to protect their players by utilising a system of rotation. It is, in many ways, more remarkable that some have resisted such a common-sense approach to a growing problem.

"The idea of rotating and resting is that they end up playing more, not less," Andrew Strauss, the England captain, said. "The last thing you want is for someone to be playing to the extent that they're dead on their feet and get injured and are out for months. That's what we're trying to avoid and by missing the odd game here and there hopefully it will allow that not to happen.

"We know that with the current demands on our bowlers they can't play every game of cricket so you have to look at opportunities where you can give the odd guy a rest and this opportunity has presented itself. It is probably the best opportunity we will have all summer in some ways. Obviously every cricketer wants to play in every game but the way we look at it is that if we manage our resources better than other teams it gives us a slight advantage and this is one of the steps we have taken in order to do that."

There is another aspect to this. England are also looking, quite sensibly, at succession planning. In order to ensure that they are prepared should injury - or "retirement" - strike Anderson or Stuart Broad, they want to know that the likes of Graham Onions and Steven Finn are fully prepared for their promotion. Both are fine bowlers already. As Darren Sammy put it: "Steven Finn would play for any other Test side in the world; probably Onions, too."

Finn is the quicker of the two and, perhaps, the more likely to play. Aged only 23, he has already claimed 53 Test wickets at an impressive average of 26.92 (he was the youngest England bowler to the 50 Test wicket milestone) and has become an automatic selection in the limited-overs teams. He is, in many ways, more of an out-and-out strike bowler than Anderson and is liable to leak a few more runs, but he can swing the new and the old ball and, with 22 wickets in four Division One Championship matches at an average of 20.04 is in decent form.

If England struggle in the ODI series against West Indies or fail to retain their World T20 title, the issue of Pietersen's retirement will return to haunt England in the way the Chris Gayle issue has haunted West Indies

Onions also makes a strong case for inclusion. While lacking the extreme pace of Finn, the steep bounce of Broad or the sharp movement of Anderson, he has enough of all three ingredients to trouble the best. He also possesses excellent control. Not only is his first-class record this season exceptional - he has taken 34 wickets in five Division One Championship matches at an average of just 12.61 - but it may be relevant that his two best first-class hauls - 8 for 101 in 2007 and 7 for 38 in 2009 - both came at Edgbaston. His second best Test haul - 4 for 58 against Australia in 2009 - also came here. His Test record - 28 wickets in eight Tests at an average of 31.03 - bears comparison with Broad and Anderson's career records, though, at 29, his age may count against him.

His selection would complete something of a fairytale recovery. Since his last Test appearance, when he played out the last over from Morne Morkel to earn a draw for England against South Africa at Cape Town in January 2010, Onions has suffered a career-threatening back injury that had him considering retraining as an umpire. If five wickets on Test debut (against West Indies) and thwarting Morkel were not proof enough of Onions' character, the determination with which he has clawed his way back to the brink of international cricket following back surgery and the insertion of a titanium pin in the left side of his back surely is.

It may be that part of the reason the England camp are so eager to talk about Anderson is that it avoids the subject of Kevin Pietersen. Strauss claimed that the Pietersen issue was "done and dusted" and that everyone was "now looking forward".

"The most important thing is that mentally you understand that you're giving away a certain part of the game," Strauss said of Pietersen's decision to retire from international limited-overs cricket. "If you're not ready to do it, then it can eat away at you. Certainly in my case, that wasn't the case." He did also add that you should "never say never" about Pietersen making a limited-overs return.

But if England struggle in the ODI series against West Indies or fail to retain their World T20 title, the issue of Pietersen's enforced retirement - and any other description is disingenuous - will return to haunt England in the way the Chris Gayle issue has haunted West Indies. It is wishful thinking to think that the Pietersen affair is over.

With the barometer set to "unremittingly grim" and both sides looking to challenges ahead, it would be easy to denigrate this Test as a dead rubber in an overcrowded schedule. West Indies, in particular, can hardly wait for the start of the limited-overs games.

But this Test may yet contain several fast bowlers capable of delivering the ball in excess of 90 mph, the debut of an exciting new spinner and one of Jonathan Trott, Ian Bell or Shivnarine Chanderpaul achieving what Dennis Amiss, Brian Lara, Rohan Kanhai, Alvin Kallicharran, MJK Smith, Kumar Sangakkara, Mohammad Yousuf et al. all failed to do and become the first Warwickshire player to ever make a Test century at Edgbaston. Doesn't sound too bad, does it?

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo