Flower's new bloom
It seems ironic to recall that Andy Flower's promotion, first to the position of England's interim coach and then to the role of head honcho, was made (among other reasons) to instil some continuity at the end of what had been a fractious period for the national squad. Unlike most candidates for the role, Flower was an England insider, having spent two years in the backroom staff, and so, given the urgency of the situation, he seemed perfectly placed to understand the dynamics and heal the rifts in the aftermath of the Pietersen-Moores debacle.
That may still be the case, but Flower's first freely selected England squad is quite some indictment of the shortcomings of the team he inherited. All throughout the recent tour of the Caribbean, the suspicion lingered that he was less than satisfied with some of the men at his disposal. Hence the indecision over Steve Harmison's role, and the banishment of Ian Bell after the decisive defeat in Jamaica. This morning, having unveiled a remarkable 12-man statement of intent, Flower's true colours are fluttering proudly from the Lord's mastheads.
When the squads for the West Indies Test series were first being discussed, the expectation was that the selectors would hedge their bets with a 16-man training squad, comprising all the usual suspects plus a few left-field selections for argument's sake. Not a bit of it. All the arguments, most notably the apparent four-way tussle for the No. 3 slot, have been flung over the pavilion balcony, and what we are left with is a 12-man squad of uncommon clarity.
Flower and his fellow selectors have refused to be swayed by sentiment, soft form, or the Fletcher-era obligation to give a fair run to any given incumbent. Michael Vaughan, Ian Bell and Owais Shah all believed they were vying for two squad places and the solitary No. 3 slot ahead of Lord's next week. Instead, their various shortcomings have been considered and noted, with Ravi Bopara hurtling up the rails (and the batting order) following his maiden century in Barbados two months ago, as well as a blistering 84 from 59 balls in the IPL that confirmed his form last week.
As with any squad announcement, there are reasons to quibble and holes to be picked, but the message that has been sent out by the new regime is unequivocal. In this summer of all summers, the one thing that is more important than form is hunger, and that has been the decisive factor to each of the debatable decisions. Bell's two hundreds in a week for Warwickshire could not atone for a solitary fifty in his past 12 Test innings. Vaughan's glimpse of form in the Friends Provident Trophy came too late to make up for a top score in 24 in first-class cricket this season.
And as for Shah, he has paid a dual price - first he failed to seize his long-overdue Test opportunity with a fitful display in the Caribbean, studded with run-outs, brain-freezes and bouts of cramp. Then he undermined his tenuous hold on the team by travelling to South Africa with the IPL, where he has sat on the sidelines throughout the tournament and allowed himself to be blindsided by his rivals, just as Andrew Strauss warned might happen when he spoke at the Middlesex press day last week.
Of course, Bopara is also at the IPL, but unlike Shah (and arguably Paul Collingwood and Andrew Flintoff as well) he is there as part of an upward curve to his career. He was a victim of circumstance following his century in the Caribbean, as England were forced to sacrifice a batsman to shoehorn an extra bowler in their attempt to salvage the series at the last gasp in Trinidad. But as a product of Essex and a former team-mate of Flower's, his time has now come. Two productive Tests against West Indies will push him even further ahead of Vaughan, Bell and Shah in the lead-up to the Ashes.
Graham Onions and Tim Bresnan are in a similar situation. Neither man was named in the 25-man development squad that was unveiled by the ECB at the beginning of the month, but not even the economic obligations of the central contracts system have been allowed to over-ride the selectors' primary consideration - the search for a Test team that can take 20 wickets for the first time since August. For Onions, currently sharing the Durham dressing-room with Harmison down at Taunton, the call-up comes after two seasons in which he has regularly been mentioned in dispatches without quite pushing his claims all the way.
But at the age of 26, and with a five-wicket haul in front of Geoff Miller against Yorkshire already this season, Onions has earned his chance as well as providing England with a perfect opportunity to stick a rocket up his colleague's backside. Much as England would love to get Harmison back to his best for the Ashes, nothing that anyone has said or done in the past 18 months has managed to shake him out of his torpor. The promotion of his junior county colleague to his coveted international spot might just be the pique he needs.
It is a brave squad for numerous reasons. England have not won at Lord's since the visit of Bangladesh in 2005, largely because of the torpid nature of the wicket, so the selection of five bowlers is both a gamble and a necessity. It's hard to escape the conclusion that England are experimenting with their line-up at a time of the year when most sports fans will be distracted by entertainment on other channels, but with so many snubs on one sheet of paper, it's not just about the reaction of the 12 chosen men, but the numerous names out in the cold as well.
Three of England's 12 players on full 12-month contracts - Vaughan, Bell and Harmison - have all been overlooked, along with the injured pairing of Flintoff and Ryan Sidebottom. Of the seven further players on increment contracts, one, Shah, has been put out to pasture and another, Samit Patel, has been told he is too fat for selection. "We've been accused in the past of a closed shop mentality," said Miller. "This proves it is emphatically not the case."
Ultimately, everything this summer comes back to the Ashes, and just as Australia reacted to their series defeat against South Africa by swishing through their squad with a brand-new broom, so England are seeking a new statement of intent after their own winter from hell. The instant recapturing of the Wisden Trophy would be the ideal way to start, and by selecting such a fresh squad, divorced from the bickerings that coloured the past six months, England have shown a determination to do things differently from now on. But the real evidence of a new start will be how many of these players line up at Cardiff in July 8. If Vaughan, Bell and Harmison are still on the sidelines, we will know this really is Flower's team.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo