Familiar problems for England selectors
Andy Flower celebrates his 41st birthday today, and as he blows out his candles, he will be making a few wishes for the summer ahead. Top of that list will be a successful Ashes campaign, but before that England must overcome West Indies and regain the Wisden Trophy. It's a challenge they can ill-afford to take lightly.
On Wednesday the selectors will announce the squad for the first Test at Lord's, and it will be Flower's first real chance to put his imprint on selection. Had he harboured any doubts as to the difficulties of the England coaching post, he was rudely awakened with Andrew Flintoff's latest injury, which will create further questions at No. 6 to go with the already vexing problem of the No. 3 position and the third fast bowler.
The comparison with the England team of four years ago could not be more stark. In 2005, Michael Vaughan's men were fit, settled (apart from the late inclusion of Kevin Pietersen after Graham Thorpe had faced Bangladesh) and in form. England's Test squad works in a four-year cycle around the Ashes, but just two months out from the next contest with Australia, it is impossible to predict how many changes will occur between now and July 8.
There are the usual two options for replacing Flintoff: either play six frontline batsmen, or an extra bowler. In their most recent Test, against West Indies in Trinidad, England went with the latter option as they sought to level the series. With the recent history of Lord's being dominated by draws that could be an option again, but six batsmen remains the likelier option in May.
That opens the door for Ravi Bopara's recall in the middle order following his brief appearance in the Caribbean, where he made a maiden century in Barbados. He has been the one English success story at the IPL, and is desperate for another shot in the Test side.
"I knew someone was going to miss out in that last Test in Trinidad and I had a feeling it was going to be me, even though I'd just scored a hundred," Bopara told the Guardian. "It was disappointing but you've just got to get on with it
"I always knew that I could get runs at Test level I just needed that opportunity again. And I was desperate for it. But I knew I had to create it myself. It wasn't just going to happen. I'm really happy with the way it went and now that Fred's injured, I'm definitely eyeing up that No6 spot."
Bopara is viewed as the long-term solution at No. 3, but for now the race appears to be between three more senior batsmen - Owais Shah, Ian Bell and Michael Vaughan. Shah, the man in possession, has the most tenuous claims to the position after failing to make the most of his opportunity in West Indies, where he made 133 runs at 22.16 and twice ran himself out. He has also spent the last two weeks on the benches of the IPL while others have been pressing their claims in county cricket.
Bell has certainly hit the ground running at the start of the season, responding to the selectors' call for him to go away and score plenty of runs. After missing out for MCC against Durham, he opened his Championship account with 172 against Somerset (albeit on another road at Taunton) followed by 108 in the Friends Provident Trophy.
"It's fantastic that Belly has come back and hit the ground running, he had a very frustrating tour [in West Indies] to be fair," Andrew Strauss said. "The one thing we said we wanted from him was hundreds and he's demonstrated his ability to do that and hopefully it will continue."
As Bell scores runs to nudge the selectors he is trying to fight off the claims of Vaughan. The former England captain had been far less convincing early in the season with scores of 24 for 20 against Durham in the Championship, but managed a timely 82 against Sussex in the Friends Provident Trophy. He has said he wants to be judged on the runs he scores, not his experience, but he holds a central contract and the temptation to bring back the man who masterminded the 2005 success will be great.
The selection issue don't stop there. Down at the other end of the order there is a desperate search for another wicket-taking bowler. If Steve Harmison makes it, the selection will be by default rather than weight of success. Given the way he performed late last summer after an extended spell with Durham, it could be worth leaving him in county cricket for another six weeks and bring him back when the Australians arrive. Ricky Ponting still bares the scar of their Lord's encounter in 2005.
Either way, there is room for at least one more quick in the squad. Harmsion's team-mate Graham Onions is gaining support after a decent start to the season, while Sajid Mahmood possesses that extra bit of pace and Tim Bresnan, the Yorkshire allrounder, is an outside bet. None, though, are exactly screaming out to be selected. How Flower must wish it was different, but no one said he was going to be easy.
Possible squad Andrew Strauss, Alastair Cook, Ian Bell, Kevin Pietersen, Paul Collingwood, Ravi Bopara, Matt Prior, Stuart Broad, Graeme Swann, James Anderson, Steve Harmison, Sajid Mahmood
Andrew McGlashan is a staff writer at Cricinfo