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July 4, 2009
The speed with which England vacated the field at Edgbaston on Friday afternoon revealed plenty about their mindset in the lead-in to next week's first Test in Cardiff. The time was 5pm on a perfect summer's afternoon, and the opportunity was there for at least another hour and a half of fine-tuning. However, it was not deemed necessary by England's think tank, who have seen enough already, and just want to get the proper action underway now.
On Sunday, that action will come one step closer to fruition when the national selector, Geoff Miller, unveils England's trimmed-down squad for Wednesday's massively anticipated Ashes opener. That Miller has spent the week in the stands at Worcester, watching the Lions - and more pertinently, Steve Harmison - rather than fussing about the form of, say, Monty Panesar, suggests that 11 of the expected 13 names on his list will be fairly easy to second-guess.
All the permutations, therefore, come down to the selection of two men: the squad's spare batsman, and of course, the extra seamer, a man who remains highly likely to complement the chosen triumvirate of James Anderson, Stuart Broad and Andrew Flintoff, given that Cardiff's reputation as a raging turner has resulted in a mere 17 wickets for spinners, out of a possible 120, in three Championship matches this season. Regardless of his three morale-boosting wickets at Edgbaston on Thursday, Panesar's own figures for Northamptonshire last month were 2 for 149.
The fact that England have yet to finalise their squad was telegraphed by the sight of Miller's fellow selectors, James Whitaker and Ashley Giles, joining him on the balcony at Worcester for the final day of the Lions match. As fate would have it, the England captain, Andrew Strauss, arrived at the ground just as Harmison and Graham Onions were about to take the new ball in Australia's second innings. That pair, plus the injury-prone but highly rated Ryan Sidebottom, are the front-runners for that final berth, and their fates will be revealed in an announcement at Old Trafford at 10am on Sunday.
If the heart says Harmison, after the fury of his performance against the Australians this week, the head suggests that Onions will be permitted to continue in the role in which he excelled, in albeit subdued circumstances, against West Indies earlier in the year. Having claimed five wickets on debut at Lord's, including four in seven balls, Onions impressed with his versatility in the second Test at Chester-le-Street, where at various stages of the match he found swing, bounce and aggression to meet his team's requirements.
Continuity calls for Onions' inclusion, even if Harmison is the last man that the Aussies would wish to line up against right now. Besides, the impression gleaned from the winter campaign in the Caribbean is that Harmison still has a lot of ground to make up with the management - not least the hard-bitten new coach, Andy Flower - after a lacklustre series of performances. His inclusion would be expedient in the circumstances, but having gone to such lengths to arrange that squad bonding exercise in Flanders last week, it would be peculiar if England went fishing outside their initial squad of 16 at this crucial stage of the series.
What is more, it is arguable that Harmison may already have done his job for this summer. In 2005, his furious five-wicket onslaught on the first morning at Lord's was the performance that spelt out to the Aussies the extent of the challenge that awaited them. If truth be told, he was rarely as effective thereafter - he made vital incisions, most notably the dismissals of Michael Clarke and Mike Kasprowicz at Edgbaston, but claimed just nine wickets at 50.22 in the remaining four Tests of the series.
What Harmison has done, however, is put on the sort of welcoming committee that Australian sides have habitually laid on for English touring teams. His unbridled hostility with the ball has been coupled with a selection of choice barbs that reveal an astonishing appetite for a tussle from a man who came across so meekly in Australia three years ago. It hasn't quite been like watching the long-retired Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson chopping England down to size in regular tour openers at Lilac Hill, but it's not far removed.
Even Harmison himself does not expect to feature at Cardiff, but the lurking menace of his Worcester performance is quite enough national service for now - in particular, the manner in which he has dissected the technique of Australia's wunderkind opener, Phillip Hughes. "I have put loads of doubt in him [Hughes]," said Harmison. "I imagine I've put doubt in a lot of the batsmen's minds."
As for the 13th man in the squad, Michael Vaughan's retirement has cleared the clutter quite nicely as far as the selectors are concerned. Regardless of his first-ball duck for the Lions, Ian Bell's class is such that he's unlikely to be shunned at this stage of the series, even if his temperament has yet to convince everyone. Including, quite possibly, the man himself.
Possible Test squad Andrew Strauss (capt), Alastair Cook, Ravi Bopara, Kevin Pietersen, Paul Collingwood, Ian Bell, Matt Prior (wk), Andrew Flintoff, Stuart Broad, Graeme Swann, James Anderson, Graham Onions, Monty Panesar.
Who should be in England's squad for the first Test?
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