Onions pips Harmison for final slot
Graham Onions will compete with Monty Panesar for England's final bowling spot in the first Test at Cardiff on Wednesday, after he and Ian Bell were named in a 13-man squad that includes all 11 of the players who took part in England's three-day warm-up against Warwickshire last week.
Onions, who played in England's last two Tests against West Indies in May, was chosen ahead of his Durham team-mate Steve Harmison, who impressed with a six-wicket haul for the England Lions against Australia at Worcester, but has been overlooked by the selectors since slipping out of favour during the winter tour of the Caribbean.
"We were keen to show consistency in selection and retain the nucleus of the side that performed so well against West Indies earlier this summer," said the national selector, Geoff Miller. "Graham Onions has made an excellent start to his Test career and gives us a different option when we consider the make-up of our bowling attack and the type of conditions we will encounter.
"There is healthy competition for places in our starting line-up at present and the strong performance by the England Lions against Australia at Worcester demonstrated that we are starting to develop a larger squad of players who can compete effectively with international class players."
If the heart called for Harmison's inclusion, after the fury of his performance against the Australians this week, the head always suggested that Onions would be permitted to continue in the role in which he excelled, in albeit subdued circumstances, 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 against West Indies at Chester-le-Street, where at various stages of the match he found swing, bounce and aggression to meet his team's requirements.
"It's a great feeling," Onions told Sky Sports. "I feel I've learnt a lot from the two games I've played. It shows the hard work pays off eventually. Everything is clicking, I'm pitching the ball up and doing a little more with it. The Australians are ahead of us, so bring it on."
Despite talk of England playing two spinners in Cardiff, Onions remains highly likely to complement the chosen triumvirate of James Anderson, Stuart Broad and Andrew Flintoff, given that the venue'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 at Cardiff last month were 2 for 149.
Continuity called 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 have been expedient in the circumstances, but having gone to such lengths to arrange that squad bonding exercise in Flanders last week, it would have been 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.
It was evidently a close-run decision, however, as suggested 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 on Saturday. As fate would have it, the England captain, Andrew Strauss, arrived at the ground as well, just as Harmison and Onions were about to take the new ball in Australia's second innings.
Harmison himself had said he did 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 remaining 11 names in the squad, the speed with which they as a team left the field at Edgbaston on Friday afternoon revealed plenty about their mindset in the lead-in to the first Test. The time was 5pm on a perfect summer's afternoon, and the opportunity had been 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.
"We were delighted with the way in which the team performed in the warm-up match at Edgbaston and it was very encouraging to see Andrew Flintoff bowl so well on his return to the side," said Miller. With the exception of Kevin Pietersen, who was never likely to raise his game in such a low-key fixture, each of the top six made at least a half-century, while the bowlers enjoyed a useful work-out, with Anderson starring with 5 for 34 in the first innings.
As for the 13th man in the squad, Michael Vaughan's retirement had cleared the clutter quite nicely as far as the selectors were concerned. Regardless of his first-ball duck for the Lions, Bell's class is such that he was 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.
"Ian Bell has performed well in county cricket this summer," said Miller. "He will act as cover batsman for this Test match should any of our established batsmen be unavailable through injury."
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.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo