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Sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton

Who's up for Australia?

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

Rob Steen

March 19, 2009

Comments: 13 | Text size: A | A

Andrew Strauss and Paul Collingwood take a single, India v England, 1st Test, Chennai, 3rd day, December 13, 2008
Small cheer: Strauss and Collingwood have done well in West Indies and are among the few who pick themselves for the Ashes © Getty Images
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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.


Ben Scott tries in vain to stop an overthrow, Kent v Middlesex, Twenty20 Cup final, The Rose Bowl, July 26, 2008
Should Ben Scott keep wicket, so Matt Prior can bat at six and Flintoff at seven? © Getty Images
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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

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Posted by sabina2009 on (March 23, 2009, 18:43 GMT)

The way the Aussies performed in the test series against the South Africans in South Africa, it leaves us no doubt that the Australians are still the best. They have recovered from misery rapidly. Their performance against this same South African team on their home ground was a pretty ordinary one. But it was simply extraordinary to see Australia bounce back strongly and it did not take long time for them to recover. Now, if Australia keeps this performance then it will surely be hard for England to win the Ashes series. England will have to play extremely well in order to win the series against the mighty Aussies.

Posted by Parth_Pala on (March 20, 2009, 18:04 GMT)

England are indeed running around like headless chickens. You need to stick with Strauss and Cook at the top. If you watch cricket they were your best bet in recent times, it was your continuous makeshift no.3 which caused problems. Bring in Vaughan at no.3. At four you can have someone like Collingwood who won't be exposed to the new ball which he clearly struggles against. Pietersen should bat at 5. He always wanted to bat at 5 and why not? With two batsmen to come and Broad he will have plenty of run making opportunities he averages best at this position. England were winning with him at 5. Have a solid no.6 wicketkeeper and then Flintoff. Then Broad, Anderson Swann and someone in form! This is just an idea from an Indian fan whose going with the ABA motto. Anyone but Australia!

Posted by kupp on (March 20, 2009, 10:39 GMT)

I see England has a problem with 3, and Prior is batting well. So why not let Prior bat 3? And they can have as a standard lineup:

Strauss, Cook, Prior, Pieterson, Collingwood, Flintoff (if not fit Bopara), Ambrose, Broad, Swann, Anderson, Panesar

In games where they want to play an extra bowler, because perhaps the batting pitch is gentle, then they can let Prior take the gloves, and play and extra seamer like Simon Jones, Steve Harmison or Amjad Khan. Not sure who else is waiting in the wings for England's seamers.

Posted by riteshjsr on (March 20, 2009, 5:56 GMT)

I'm an Indian and I'll root for England in the Ashes. For me, its always ABA (Anyone but Australia). England need Michael Vaughan at 3. Number of runs scored in doemstic cricket is not always an indicator of form, ability, and drive to do well at the international level. Especially for class players like Michael Vaughan. Rob has talked about Ganguly's successful return to the Indian team, but then his form in Ranji Trophy wasn't all that great when he was recalled. Same with Sehwag - he was struggling in domestic cricket after being dropped from the Indian team. Despite this, Kumble insisted on selecting Sehwag for the Australian tour. The rest as they say, is history. I don't think Vaughan's presence will undermine Strauss' authority. The presence of 3 former captains in the team did not undermine Dhoni's authority, did it? So Vaughan should definitely be in the team. If the Ashes is not a motivator, I wonder what is?

Posted by kingofspain on (March 19, 2009, 23:19 GMT)

It's disingenious for Rob to talk about Prior's 52 byes in the 5th test. The vast majority of them were due to Khan spraying the ball all over the place. No keeper would have prevented most of those byes. Come on Rob! We all know Prior isn't the greatest keeper going but be fair!

Posted by durhamd on (March 19, 2009, 20:32 GMT)

If we play Prior as an opener with another wicket-keeper at No.6 then we will also have a good fielder (possibly slips?) alongside Collingwood to make sure we are a decent fielding unit.

Perhaps;

Strauss Prior Cook Pietersen Collingwood Scott/Ambrose Flintoff Broad Swann/Rashid Anderson Davies?

Posted by thelawnet on (March 19, 2009, 14:26 GMT)

As for Sidebottom, suggesting he may never play another match is madness.

Sidebottom averages below 25 in seam-friendly England and also in New Zealand. When he went to Sri Lanka in 2007 he finished with a measly few wickets at an average of 60. His trip to West Indies has had a similar outcome.

Yet that doesn't mean, come May in Chester-le-street, that he won't perform.

If Sidebottom can continue what he's done in the past, which is pick up wickets in England at 22 runs a piece, then he should play for England forever. Sure, he might be best left behind on tours of India, Pakistan, etc., but let's wait to see how he does in England before concluding on the basis of a few flat wickets in the West Indies that he should never play again.

Posted by Dinker-cktlover on (March 19, 2009, 11:30 GMT)

England's real issue is with No.3(ie if they hope to atleast draw the test matches based on recent performances of Eng and Aus)...and there is no quickfix or immediate solution for that.Batsmen like dravid,kallis,Ponting or even Yunus Khan just dont appear from nowhere.Make shift promotions or demotions to settle No3 slot will only cause further problems.As pointed out rightly in this article eng should have tried shah in India itself.And Thelawnet shah may not be a Hick wrt eng domestic performance(does it matter..is England on the lookout for another hick..??),but in India last year along with KP and flintoff he too seemed to be the one worthy of having made the trip....Rest of the X1 kept on losing and dint show any inclination to innovate/experiment/improve.....

Posted by sunnysideuppp on (March 19, 2009, 10:23 GMT)

What happened to Chris Tremlet?I thought he showed a lot of potential in the series vs India in 2007/8

Posted by 1stSlip on (March 19, 2009, 10:05 GMT)

Interesting thoughts Rob.

England cricket's underlying problem is it's poor administration and management. The governing body seems incapable of delivering a system that ensures that the international team have a) a world-class coach and b) a strong captain. Much of England' confidence success in the 2005 Ashes was correctly attributed to firstly great coaching thanks to eg Troy Cooley who showed the Quicks how to reverse swing and secondly Vaughan's solid and confident captaincy.

How can the England team be expected to perform confidently in the coming 2009 Ashes without a top coach and with a captain who is really just a stand-in/2nd string for Pietersen.

To stand any chance in the Ashes, England need to get on and rapidly make a decisive and progressive appointment of a worldclass coach and secondly the powers to be must return Pietersen to the captaincy because he is the only one who can psychologically intimidate the Australians.

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Rob Steen Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton, whose books include biographies of Desmond Haynes and David Gower (Cricket Society Literary Award winner) and 500-1 - The Miracle of Headingley '81. His investigation for the Wisden Cricketer, "Whatever Happened to the Black Cricketer?", won the UK section of the 2005 EU Journalism Award "For diversity, against discrimination". His latest book, Floodlights and Touchlines: A History of Spectator Sport, will be published in the summer of 2014

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