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September 12, 2012
It speaks volumes about the state of transition in which the England team finds itself that there is so much uncertainty about the make-up of the Test squad to tour India.
After several years of continuity of selection and predictability, England find themselves at the start of a partial rebuilding operation. Tellingly, the England selectors put aside two days to pick the side and have delayed the announcement of the tour party until September 18.
It is unlikely that Kevin Pietersen will be included. Unlikely, but not impossible. Alastair Cook, England's new Test captain, is understandably ambitious and knows full well that his side's hopes of success in India are vastly reduced by omitting Pietersen from his side. For that reason, several meetings have been held with Pietersen over recent days as both sides seek a resolution to a problem that, with a bit of common sense and humility, should never have been allowed to reach this stage.
Had Pietersen apologised without caveat, he might have been selected. But as soon as he expressed his lingering resentment over the parody Twitter account, the spectre of more unrest within the dressing room was raised. England will not risk that. If Pietersen is to come back into the England fold, he must do so on the management's terms, not his.
Pietersen's future is now uncertain. Currently without a central contract, he knows he can, as a free agent, commit to the whole 2013 season of the IPL. But he also knows that by doing so he risks increasing the divide between him and England. If he plays the whole season, he will not be available for all the Tests against New Zealand at the start of next summer. Or, just as importantly, been seen to be fighting to win back his place in county cricket. In the meantime, he should be available for the Champions League Twenty20 and the Big Bash League.
He will also be without a county from the end of this month. While Surrey have expressed a desire to retain his services, they will be waiting to see whether he is given another central contract before committing. With Chris Tremlett, who was omitted from the central contract list, already now added to their wage bill, the addition of Pietersen would take Surrey perilously close to the salary cap.
There is a possibility - no more than that - that Pietersen will never make it back into the England team. Should Jonny Bairstow or Eoin Morgan, whose award of a central contact virtually assures him a place, seize their chance, or even look as if they are worthy of longer-term investment, there will be no room for Pietersen's return. The lines of communication remain open and the sense is of a thawing of relationships, but Pietersen has risked ending his international career with this episode. For a man who moved continents to pursue his dream, who worked hard at his game for more than 20 years, who made endless sacrifices and who should, right now, be at his peak, it seems an awful waste.
England have a difficult enough job selecting a team to win in India even without the Pietersen issue. Not since 1984-85 have they won a Test series there and to do so with a side in transition and against a foe anxious to avenge the whitewash in England in the summer of 2011, will prove desperately demanding.
For a start, none of England's back-up spin options are ideal. Monty Panesar remains a poor batsman and worse fielder; Samit Patel is not quite strong enough with bat and nowhere near potent enough with ball to be considered an allrounder and James Tredwell, for all his admirable qualities with bat, ball and in the field, has the misfortune to be an offspinner much like Graeme Swann. Doubts about Swann's elbow might convince the selectors to include Tredwell, but Panesar, for the potency of his bowling and the variation he offers, remains the likely candidate. Patel, with his ability to bat at No. 7, may also win inclusion as he did for Sri Lanka earlier this year.
There are no ideal options for the opening batsman position, either. While Jonathan Trott and Ian Bell, among others, could move up the order, such a tactic would be moving a problem rather than solving one. Few of the new options are perfect - Joe Root and Varun Chopra are a little green; Michael Carberry has, perhaps unfairly, a dubious reputation against spin and Nick Compton has scored his mountain of runs this season at No. 3.
Chopra might be considered to have an advantage thanks to his reliable slip catching and he scored heavily in Sri Lanka last winter but, on the basis that he has been opening for the Lions, Root is seen as the next in line. He is highly rated by Graham Thorpe, the lead batting coach for the ECB, and is said to have improved markedly against spin over the last 12 months. His offspin should not be relevant - he has claimed only eight first-class wickets in his career - but he has the talent and the time (he is only 21) to develop into the man who opens with Cook in the Ashes.
That would mean no place for Compton, Carberry, Chopra or James Taylor. It may well mean no place for Ravi Bopara, too, despite the fact that his bowling would provide a valuable option. But the likelihood that Bell will miss one Test on paternity leave and the need for some back-up for a green opening batsman might persuade the selectors to include a 17th man. If so, the prolific Compton will be hard to overlook. Craig Kieswetter, despite one poor ODI performance recently, may also have moved in front of Steve Davies as reserve wicketkeeper and is an improving batsman against spin, even if his keeping standing up remains a work in progress.
More replacements will be available as required from the England Lions squad. The Lions also tour India this winter, though the first two Tests of the main series will probably have been played before their arrival.
All that still leaves England with one substantial problem. Their slip catching has been poor over the last six months - it may well have cost them the series against South Africa and, as a consequence their No.1 Test ranking - and it is far from obvious who might be pressed into service in the cordon on this tour.
One solution might be to recall Rikki Clarke, who now offers pace and control with the ball, reliability with the bat and the best pair of hands in county cricket, in place of Tim Bresnan who, since his elbow operation, has struggled to recover his nip with the ball. Sadly Clarke, like Pietersen and Panesar, is not seen as quite the sort of fellow that would fit into the increasingly homogenized England dressing room. At some stage, though, if England keep losing, that narrow thinking may be challenged.
Possible squad Alastair Cook (capt), Joe Root, Jonathan Trott, Ian Bell, Jonny Bairstow, Eoin Morgan, Samit Patel, Craig Kieswetter (wkt), Matt Prior (wkt), Tim Bresnan, Stuart Broad, Graeme Swann, James Anderson, Monty Panesar, Steven Finn, Graham Onions
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfoFeeds: George Dobell
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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