March 19, 2009

Who's up for Australia?

There's not too much good news for England as they look ahead to the Ashes

So this is what it has come to. Here we are, about to start the final lap of the winter marathon and the only victories by an England XI to date have been accomplished by those batting without the aid of a box. Maybe the boys could learn a thing or two from such feminine fearlessness.

The last time England won the Women's World Cup was in an Ashes year, too. Mind you, that Lord's lashing of Sunday's opponents, New Zealand, was not quite the sweetest chapter of that bittersweet Pommie summer. I was there at Guildford on the afternoon of July 26, toasting Carole Hodges' match-winning hundred against Belinda Clark and her fellow invincibles on the very day that their menfolk were completing an innings victory at Headingley and retaining the urn. As guilty pleasures go, it was almost up there with my fatal weakness for virtually any movie starring Adam Sandler, even You Don't Mess With The Zohan.

Will history rewind and replay itself? The signs are nothing if not auspicious. For one thing, England have already beaten New Zealand in the Super Sixes. For another, Ricky Ponting's revitalised combo have launched a comeback of such unforeseen force and velocity, against the self-same rivals who humbled them at the turn of the year, you have to pinch yourself pretty hard to remember that barely two months have elapsed since the rest of cricketkind were weeping crocodile's tears over the fall of the Australian empire.

Ferreting around for optimism amid the detritus of England's Test labours this winter is not a task for those susceptible to realism, queasiness or excessive shows of nationalism. Andrew Strauss, Paul Collingwood, Matt Prior and Ravi Bopara have all bolstered their stature with the bat, albeit on somewhat deader pitches than they can expect to encounter come July; Jimmy Anderson, Stuart Broad and Graeme Swann have advanced with the ball. Many too many, though, have stood still or slid backwards.

In all likelihood Ryan Sidebottom, the Comet of 2007, will never play another international. If Steve Harmison is permitted to venture within 200 yards of a Test pitch ever again it will be evidence of a willingness to stretch the outermost bounds of selectorial optimism. The saddest and most avoidable casualty, nonetheless, was Owais Shah. He may have shot himself in the foot far too often but he also received oodles of help. Yes, on the evidence of the Wisden Trophy series, he seems too tense to prosper over five days as he does in the shorter formats, too anxious to prove his point and make up for lost time, too Boycottian a judge of a run, too vulnerable in the field, and altogether too brittle. Nothing, though, hurt his - and hence the collective - cause more than the decision to exclude the country's most assured player of spin from the tour of India. Had he played and flowed and prospered, who knows how that could have turbo-charged his confidence. Staying loyal to Ian Bell was a kind act of purest folly; the repercussions, for Shah and English cricket, may be felt for years to come.

The question is how much - as distinct from whether - the side's erratic and often painfully modest displays can be attributed to those endless off-field upheavals and shenanigans. This is the puzzle the selectors must wrestle with between now and July. Their answers will determine whether or not England have a cat's chance in hell of wresting back the Ashes. They deserve every ounce of our compassion.

The question is how much England's erratic and often painfully modest displays can be attributed to those endless off-field upheavals and shenanigans. This is the puzzle the selectors must wrestle with between now and July

It is more than a little disquieting, after all, to realise that no more than five men, fitness allowing, can be said to be inked in for the first Test in Cardiff - Strauss, Alastair Cook, Kevin Pietersen, Collingwood and Flintoff. In addition to the need for two specialist batsmen, three spinners are in competition for one (occasionally two) of the other remaining berths - Swann, Monty Panesar and Adil Rashid. A host of seamers will scrap for two or three more, depending on conditions, a list of applicants headed by Anderson, Broad and the seemingly cursed Simon Jones. Prior's record bag of byes in Port-of-Spain, moreover, has revived the stump-minding debate just when we thought it was safe to relinquish the national guilt over Chris Read. By any standards that's an awfully big puzzle for an Ashes year.

So why not take a leaf out of the Australian book and treat caution with the disdain it almost always deserves? Andrew Hilditch and his fellow selectors have spent the past few months flinging untried players into the middle of an ocean bubbling with Indian and South African sharks, first-capping three men in the same Test for the first time in two-and-a-half decades, and another in an ODI before he'd taken guard in a first-class match. They've noted who swims, who flails and who is devoured. The fruits were Phil Hughes, Brad Haddin, Marcus North and Peter Siddle, all of whom look eminently capable of making a right old nuisance of themselves in England. Who knows, Jason Krezja might yet find his way back into Ponting's affections and make England's worst nightmare come true: humiliation by an Aussie spinner not named Shane. So, if I might be so irreverent as to pervert Sgt Phil Eszterhaus's immortal instructions to his beat cops in Hill Street Blues, let's not be careful out there.

IT HAS OFTEN BEEN SAID, loud and long, by many of those who cover England on a daily basis, that county cricket lacks Australia's depth of native talent. These judgments may not be without foundation but they no longer stem from personal knowledge: the chief correspondents no longer have the time or space to actually watch county cricket. Discounting inexperience, at this stage, would be self-defeating. Caution, after all, is strictly for wimps.

Wayward and nerve-riddled as he was in Trinidad (he certainly did Prior few favours), Amjad Khan clearly has the speed and spite to make experienced batsmen quake and quiver. Given the amount of rope Harmison has been given, to deny the Dane further opportunities would hardly say much for consistency of selection.

And what of Mark Davies, whose wicket-plundering has been among the few highlights of the England Lions' tour of New Zealand, and whose 232 first-class scalps have come at just over 21 apiece - albeit, thanks to interminable back problems and a nasty lung infection, spread over the best part of eight years. Granted, at 28, the Durham lad isn't exactly a young pretender, but then Mitchell Johnson had to bide his time too, and look how quickly the Australian has become a reputable stoker of fear.

Rashid is another punt worth taking. Again, caution has been writ large. Thanks to that stubborn refusal to play him in the Caribbean he remains untried, the potential wilfully and foolishly suppressed. "He's not ready," runs the worn-out mantra. "We don't want to rush him." Nor are two Tests in May likely to tell us much about his aptitude for a higher calling, unless he makes runs. But Len Hutton was 21 when he racked up his 364; Javed Miandad and Sachin Tendulkar were world-beaters at 17; Phil Hughes has just become the youngest man to score twin hundreds in a Test; Ajantha Mendis hit the ground sprinting for all he was worth. Why not throw Rashid in, see if he swims, flails or gets devoured? How many productive legspinners have ever boasted a CV featuring first-class centuries? Besides, aside from the Spanish Inquisition, it'd be the very last thing the Aussies would expect.

The main debate surrounding the top order centres on the No. 3 slot, home, traditionally, to the best batsman (unless, of course, his initials are GS). In an ideal world Michael Vaughan, as partial as any England batsman to Australian bowling since David Gower, would stack up runs in sufficient numbers for Yorkshire to demand a recall, but the odds, historically, are on the lengthy side. The indomitable Sourav Ganguly apart, how many ex-captains have ever been dropped yet clambered their way back to a level of performance that didn't insult their salad days? In addition, while his attacking nature might embolden Strauss, Vaughan's presence might also undermine the captain's efforts to stamp his authority, make this his team.

There are some decent alternatives. Pietersen, as batsman-in-chief, ought to grasp the nettle and come in at 3. He says he doesn't want to, but should he have a choice? (Memo to Geoff Miller, Ashley Giles and James Whitaker: appeal shamelessly to the lad's ego.) If that proves a non-starter, why not switch either Strauss or Cook to first-drop? That would leave room for someone to pep up the opening alliance, to assault the new ball the way Marcus Trescothick did so memorably in 2005, changing the entire mood and balance of the series on that first morning at Edgbaston.

Joe Denly has the shots but not, for now, the technical or mental rigour (the Lions batted him at No. 4 in New Zealand); his opening partner at Kent, Rob Key, has a Test double-ton behind him but averaged a puny 31 in last term's Championship; Middlesex's tenderfooted Billy Godleman could have been a contender had he not endured such a horrid sophomore campaign, but sage judges believe he will come again. Worcestershire's Stephen Moore is the most compelling of the left-field options: he doesn't so much occupy creases as sign a series of lengthy leases; and he upped his tempo appreciably in 2008.

However, the prickliest of these issues, once again, is the wicketkeeping, just as it was going into the last Ashes series, just as it has been ever since Alec Stewart retired. Newly reinstated, Prior appeared to be improving in the Caribbean until his bout of butterfingers in Trinidad, where he conceded 52 byes in 244.3 overs to Denesh Ramdin's 10 in 197.3. Tim Ambrose, his old sparring partner, flatmate and paternity locum, still looked the defter performer during his only outing of the winter, and his batting, while more limited in scope and force, didn't exactly pale by comparison. The dilemma is whether to persist with Prior on the basis that, over time, the runs he scores could yet outweigh those he gives away by a wide enough margin, or revert to a specialist who might average 30. Shaun Udal, the Middlesex captain, is adamant that the most impressive candidate is the irrepressible Ben Scott, who in the 2008 Championship averaged more than Stephen Davies, made more runs than Stephen Davies and more hundreds than Stephen Davies. He also keeps like a dream to spinners. Arguing with Udal seldom pays dividends.

Picking Scott also opens up another possibility. Prior has emerged as England's best batsman-keeper since Stewart, so why waste his principal string? He could go in at six, with Flintoff at seven, which as one wise judge pointed out to me yesterday, is where Flintoff should have been all along, licensed to thrill, to be England's Adam Gilchrist. Or Prior could open. Either way, he has done enough to warrant perseverance, gloves or no gloves.

Crossing fingers, nevertheless, may still be the selectors' trustiest tactic. For Jones to defy the hasty obituarists and emerge from his latest knee operation with all cylinders firing would be the biggest conceivable boost to England's prospects. In bowling terms, he was the difference between the teams in 2005; bones and joints permitting, those 42 Championship wickets for Worcestershire in just 211 overs last summer suggest he could yet be a hero again. Not just for one day, though; a few would be nice. A Welshman reclaiming the Ashes in the summer of Cardiff's inaugural Test? Now that's a fairytale even hardened Australians could stomach.

Extreme Optimist's England Squad for First Ashes Test: Strauss (capt), Cook, Pietersen, Collingwood, Bopara, Prior, Flintoff, Scott (wkt), Broad, Anderson, Jones, Davies, Rashid, Swann

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton