Of Crane, Stokes and other things
Stick or twist? Mainly the England selectors have twisted - both of their own volition and of necessity. The big surprise is the Hampshire batsman James Vince. The little surprise is the Hampshire legspin bowler Mason Crane. Neither may be able to keep their county in the first division of the County Championship but each has a rare talent as yet unfulfilled.
England have eight cricketers of undoubted Test match quality and five that can reasonably be thought of as world-class. It is upon these eight - Alastair Cook, Joe Root, Ben Stokes, Jonny Bairstow, Moeen Ali, Chris Woakes, Stuart Broad and James Anderson - that England hang their hats. The others most likely to take the remaining slots at the Gabba on November 23rd are Mark Stoneman, Vince and Gary Ballance - though Dawid Malan will argue the point: these are batsmen with much to prove and Cook and Root to shore them up. If the top order provide the breathing space, the middle order can do irreparable damage.
It is a blow to have lost Toby Roland-Jones to injury, for he provided ideal cover for the swing bowlers, and Mark Wood, the one truly fast bowler in the country. Jake Ball and Craig Overton are strong men who hit the pitch hard and will run in till the billabong runs dry, but they are not yet craftsmen. Much will hinge on the Anderson-Broad-Woakes-Stokes quartet at the Gabba. Indeed, it is enough to say that much will hinge on what happens at the Gabba full stop. It always does. The hard-fought draw there in 2010-11 led to a stunning victory in Adelaide, so buoyant was the team.
The selectors have omitted Tom Westley, who, you could say, was in the right place at the wrong time. As the spotlight on him increased, so the level of his performance decreased. Either he was not quite ready or he is not cut to Test match standard. Either way, his apparent introversion has cost him a place on the trip of a lifetime. Much the same can be said of Keaton Jennings. In contrast, Malan did not look so overawed. Yes, he spurned the two real opportunities he created, losing his wicket when set to shots that did him no justice, but he looked like he could cope with both the opposition and the moment. Ballance is back because he has four Test hundreds to his name and is favoured by Root, who has seen him up close from the beginning. His will power can serve England well from No. 5 in the order.
Thoughts on Vince were documented in this column a week ago. His record does not deserve selection but he has the game for Australia, the pitches and the players. He will need to discipline those pretty cover drives off front and back foot and think more about straight drives and cut shots. There is a stealth to extra bounce. You think you are in position to play a shot but suddenly it is too late and the ball is flying from the edge of your bat towards the laughing hyenas behind the wicket. Vince can do something special if he finds a little vinegar to go with the honey.
Crane is a remarkably cavalier choice by selectors who have no such history. It is based almost entirely on his excellent season for Gordon in the first grade of Sydney club cricket, where, last March, he won the medal for the player of the season after taking more than 50 wickets. There were three seven-wicket hauls that indicated an eagerness to take responsibility and make it count. Each Friday morning he met with Stuart MacGill at the Sydney Cricket Ground and spent a couple of hours chewing the cud and ripping out legbreaks. Trevor Chappell was his club coach and as the season progressed so Chappell began to whisper about the young fella from Hampshire spinning them hard and getting exciting results. It is no bad thing to have a Chappell on your side. Soon enough, Ian and Greg were on the case too.
This summer in England he has moved around with the England team, wagging his tail. The plan was to play him at Lord's in the final Test of the summer, against West Indies, but that went pear-shaped when England lost at Headingley and wanted a full complement of seamers for the well-grassed pitch. Nice as it is to hang out with the big boys, Crane should have played more cricket for Hampshire. Certainly on two occasions and arguably on one other, Hampshire have preferred the extra seamer who can bat a bit. To a degree this is short-sighted, but in Hampshire's defence the club argues it is protecting its asset from pitches that wouldn't suit his skills (it has been an odd summer for county pitches, which have seamed around more than expected) and opponents who want to take him down. Those of us on the outside argue that he can only improve if he plays and that, anyway, a legspinner is a better option than another medium-pacer. It is a long, long time since England treated wristspin well.
The question we might ask the selectors is whether Crane has been chosen to complement Moeen Ali or replace him should he get injured. He is the right answer to complement - and to surprise, for he will neither shirk nor shrink - but will not easily provide the control that Moeen has added to his knack for taking important wickets. The selectors will say they were not long on alternatives, which may upset Adil Rashid, Jack Leach, Ollie Rayner, Dominic Best and the like. It is one hell of a twist and one that deserves some applause. When judging Crane - and everyone will - it is worth remembering that only Abdul Qadir, Anil Kumble and Shane Warne among the brotherhood have truly commanded the Test match arena in the modern age of the game. Others have made bright starts and then faded to the pack - Yasir Shah for instance - which isn't to say they won't return, only that it is a difficult business.
None of which brings us to Stokes, but he cannot be ignored at this time. As I write England are at the Kia Oval, chasing 356 to beat West Indies. He should be at the wicket about now, and whether watching or not, will surely be hurting. There will be guilt too, along with frustration, fear, angst and embarrassment. Most of all, he will feel shock. A night on the tiles, especially one that ends in such disaster, is a mighty gamble when the world lies at your feet. England are unlikely to retain the Ashes without him, so he better be cleared by the police, or family, friends and fans will hold him accountable.
Much as Stokes must take responsibility for himself, so those around him must keep a keen eye. The trouble with the all-action heroes is that few people have either the power or courage to steer them on a different course. It is as if they cast a spell. This, of course, is a reason the opposition cower - Sir Ian Botham and Andrew Flintoff will tell him that - but a danger of such extremism is self-destruction. Stokes is both a magnificent cricketer and a very good fellow: many hearts will have broken at the news of his nightclub mistake, not least of those in the dressing room and in the corridors of the ECB. Andrew Strauss finds himself in a most awkward position. If no charge is made by the police, he will have to take action himself on the basis that the England vice-captain is out of order and needs to sort himself out pretty damn quick.
If Stokes does make the plane to Australia, England have a great shout. During the evenings he may have to adopt the Botham method of entertainment circa 1986-87 - invite everyone to a party in his own room, a suite, of course. Meantime, Root will need Messrs Cook, Anderson and Broad to stick close by. With Stokes, it is not a time to twist.
Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel Nine in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK