May 12, 2009

England shake up the system

The pursuit of continuity used to be a virtue for the selectors, but the inclusion of Bell and Sidebottom shows that that's not longer quite the case

In his short but impressive stint as England coach, Andy Flower has made it his mission to dismantle the comfort zone that his players have become used to inhabiting. In the not-so-distant past, an England squad announcement in the aftermath of a three-day victory would have been as arduous a process as box-ticking. Not anymore. Far from whacking out the same 12 names that did the job at Lord's, Flower used this weekend's opportunity to further stoke the fires of England's renewed ambition.

There were three standout performers in England's 10-wicket victory at Lord's. Ravi Bopara scored a brilliant 143 at No. 3 to repay the faith that Flower had placed in his ability, while Graham Onions and Graeme Swann claimed 13 wickets between them in a dramatic derailment of West Indies' first and second innings. And yet for the Chester-le-Street Test, two of the three - Bopara and Onions - have had any sense of entitlement shattered by a very pointed pair of call-ups.

On the face of it, the timing of the recall of both Ian Bell and Ryan Sidebottom seems incongruous. It remains unlikely that either will play on Thursday this week, and even if a change is made, Tim Bresnan - who was anonymous at Lord's through no great fault of his own - is the likeliest candidate to make way for a player of greater experience. Nevertheless, the message from the England hierarchy is clear. No one this summer will be permitted to rest on his laurels.

That represents a subtle break with recent tradition, because the pursuit of continuity used to be a virtuous circle for England's selectors - especially in the early years of Duncan Fletcher's reign, when the chop-and-change culture was most in need of correcting. The reasoning back then was simple. If the team was settled, then the players would relax, and if their energies were focused on the task at hand, rather than the rear-view mirror, the results would surely follow.

Of late, however, the flip side of that reasoning has held far greater sway. Continuity has bred contempt, or at the very least stymied any desire for self-improvement, and even the media has been sucked into the assumptions. It was revealing how, in the build-up to the first Test, the debate about England's No. 3 revolved around three tried and tested individuals - Bell, Michael Vaughan and Owais Shah - none of whom had made an outstanding case for inclusion. The notion of a left-field selection such as Bopara barely entered the permutations.

As it turned out, Bopara's first home Test appearance was a triumph for Flower. For the record he did survive a brace of let-offs (the second of which, on 76 and five balls after the first-day tea break, was a moment that might have propelled the debate all the way to the eve of the Cardiff Test), but he earned his luck because of the absolute assurance he displayed at the crease. He whiled away the anxious moments in the nineties by dreaming up his elaborate "honours-board" celebration, and according to Flower he was even able to plan the exact shot with which he reached the landmark. "He wanted to get to his hundred with a single so he could run up to the other end," said an admiring coach. "And he played for it."

Such mid-innings daydreaming might come across as presumptuous, but as any serious batsman will tell you, any technique that diffuses the intensity of a Test innings is to be encouraged. Back in the day, for instance, Mark Ramprakash's shortcomings stemmed directly from his inability to chill out at the crease, and a similar lack of compartmentalisation could well be to blame for Bell's inadequate record in that No. 3 position - 930 runs in 16 Tests at an average of 31.00, which is nearly 10 runs lower than his overall Test figure of 40.59.

If no one foresaw Bopara's brisk promotion, then Bell's return to the squad for Chester-le-Street was Flower's second surprise of a summer in which everyone seems destined to be kept on their toes. On the one hand, his inclusion nips another debate in the bud by confirming the England pecking order this summer - not least, it clarifies with some finality the vexing issue of Vaughan's place in their Ashes planning. On the other, it seems like a strange U-turn from a selection committee that publicly questioned Bell's passion for the cause ahead of the Lord's Test.

Where a cartel once existed, there is now open competition, and on the evidence of an uplifting first Test, the improvement is already plain to see

But perhaps a bit of tough love is precisely what Bell and England need. At the age of 27, he is far from being yesterday's man, and his record of six half-centuries in 10 Ashes Tests is perhaps rather better than his reputation would lead one to believe. But like a man dangled by the ankles over a balcony, the shock and relief of being yanked back to safety could be the moment that makes or breaks him.

Bell himself believed his chance this summer had been and gone, especially with his subsequent omission from the World Twenty20 squad. Now, however, the message is clear - the management still rate him, but his penchant for soft runs has been clocked, and it is not going to be tolerated any longer. When asked for the reasoning behind Bopara's call-up at Lord's, Flower didn't equivocate. "We took into account various things - everyone's talent and then their capacity to handle pressure," he said. "Mental toughness is a vital component of competitive sport."

With that in mind, Onions' follow-up Test match will be of equal intrigue. He had it easy, almost too easy, during his sensational debut at Lord's, and while the plaudits rightly rained down, England know that a follow-up on his home ground at Chester-le-Street - perhaps the last place on earth a dispirited West Indies side would wish to travel next - is far from guaranteed to stretch him to the absolute limits.

And so the selectors have applied the pressure externally instead. England have not forgotten the debt of gratitude they owe to Sidebottom, their Player of the Year in 2007-08 and a man who carried the attack singlehandedly at times, not least in their rare series win in New Zealand. With Flintoff a certainty to return when fit, and Monty Panesar very much in the mix as a second spinner, Onions could yet find himself shoved way down the pecking order unless he seizes the second Test as emphatically as he did the first.

That's Test cricket you might say, and you'd be right. But it's funny how it has taken an attitude transplant for England to be reminded of this fact. Where a cartel once existed, there is now open competition, and on the evidence of an uplifting first Test, the improvement is already plain to see.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Aditya on May 14, 2009, 13:40 GMT

    I believe, that England's good form will do a world of good for cricket. Test cricket might be viewed with renewed interest in England. In the 90's, test cricket survived, partly because of the excellence of the Australian team, because every series against Australia, was a great challenge. I personally see nothing to choose between Ravi Bopara, and Owais Shah. England is lucky to have them both. I must watch the second Test Match at Chester-le-Street.

  • Jon on May 13, 2009, 14:21 GMT

    Just a note on the Bell/Collingwood debate. In their last three completed Test series, Bell averaged 47, 16, and 16, with one hundred; Collingwood averaged 58, 43, and 61, with four hundreds. Why is Collingwood's place under threat?

  • Chris on May 13, 2009, 8:32 GMT

    Are you having a laugh 'Nampally': Anderson Out - as in the Anderson who has been England's best bowler for the past year or so, bowled unbelievably well in the Carribbean for zero reward?!? Onions to spearhead the attack - come off it, Broad and Anderson to spearhead, Onions as a very effective change bowler, yes I can give you that, but 'spearhead it'?? Christ, do I watch a different game to some people, he's skittled the West Indies tailend once and suddenly he's God's gift!! Of course I want him/think he has a lot going for him, but lets not jump the gun too early, before we pre-write the headline "Onions makes Aussies weep" Sidebottom in for Bresnan - another sensible ploy, baring in mind you explained how 'weak' the middle order is. Lets get rid of an all rounder for another seemer when for the first time in ages we havent had trouble taking 20 runs Bell into the Middle Order - I like the guy, I think he has batted very well so far this season, but who do you drop? Noone easily

  • Ashok on May 12, 2009, 20:38 GMT

    England's middle order batting is still v. fragile.Based on the first test performance KP and Collingwood were disappointing. If Bopara had not come off with his brilliant 143, England would have collapsed below 200. Bopara not only held one end shut but also encouraged Broad, Swann and Prior to fight back. Inclusion of Bell in the middle order is fully justified considering his present form. Bresnan did not contribute in the first test and Sidebottom will be a good replacement based on his record. It is a good idea to rotate 2 or 3 places regularly to get the most out of the team. Onions' place in the team is secure because he was the spearhead of the England attack getting crucial break thru'. Unless his performance falls in the next test he is sure to be the main wicket taker. On the contrary, Anderson's position is not assured.Flintoff when he returns is likely to pip him out. Team should be chosen on current form & performance. WI will fight back hard in the next test.

  • John on May 12, 2009, 20:08 GMT

    Playing four seamers is luxury England cannot afford. Bell should come in for Bresnan and bat at 6. Freddie is England's best bowler but well out of his depth at 6, he should bat at 8 when he returns. If he's not able to handle the workload in a four man attack, he shouldn't be in the team.

    At Cardiff, I'd like to see this England team: 1 Cook, 2 Strauss, 3 Bopara, 4 KP, 5 Collingwood, 6 Bell (or Shah), 7 Prior, 8 Flintoff, 9 Broad, 10 Swann, 11 Anderson

  • Prince on May 12, 2009, 18:30 GMT

    Andrew Flintoff is a certainty in England side-it's an alarming statement.He can't go through 1 full series staying fit,& he can't bat(since start of 2007;that's 3 long years).He can make it to the side through his bowling,though,& that puts him in line as a bowler ONLY,in the bracket of Harmison,Anderson,& co.Ian Bell is technically accomplished,but there's no way he can replace Collingwood.Collingwood is too classy to be replaced by a softie like Bell.Ian Bell would fit in as the 6th batsman,but he can't replace Collingwood. My England line-up for 1st Ashes test:- Strauss,Cook,Bopara,Pietersen,Vaughan,Collingwood,Prior,Flintoff,Swann,Harmison,Anderson. Since the Ashes is being played in England,I would give Harmison & Vaughan a last chance to show their skills in the 1st test.If they fail,Bell would replace Vaughan & bat @ no.6,& Broad/Sidebottom would replace Harmison.Ideally,Broad would be a cover for Flintoff,but then again.....

  • Cameron on May 12, 2009, 18:16 GMT

    I feel jolo has it sorted. Ravi has little to worry about. Paul Collingwood should be worried and rightly so. Bell would be a pest to come in later in the innings because he can be difficult to dismiss. He's a better 5 or 6 for mine. I admire Pauls grit he's a tough character. Australia have him sorted out and he's unlikely to make a run in the ashes. He should have been dropped in the west indies. Sidebottom walked straight into the team and outbowled the lot when given a chance.He should be rewarded for that but like all players needs to perform.I've always admired Andy Flower and he seems to be doing a stellar job. All these players have the skills, they need the best brought out of them. As an Australian who loves the game more than a side, I sincerely hope we have a series as enthralling as the 2005 series.It was hard work living in England then (wow I got some stick!)but the atmosphere and the cricket were absolutely sensational.Beware though Australia won't have forgotten 2005!

  • Stuart on May 12, 2009, 17:18 GMT

    Simon Jones hasn't played because he's been injured. He comes back but never long enough to really be considered. I don't think the Bell selection was a good idea, he needs to have a long run in county cricket getting huge numbers of runs to prove that he's hungry. Bring him back now and you'll only have to drop him again in a few months, remember last year? Why not try someone new? The only new batsmen England have tried since the Ashes in 2005 have been Cook, Shah and Bopara. It's not as if this has been a period of dominance by an invincible England batting line-up, or that they've been going back to their counties and dominating the Championship. The vision of Flintoff as an all-rounder (rather than the good bowler he is) is probably one of the main reasons England have lost most of the matches he's played in recently. Unfortunately, the desire for an all-rounder has led them to play Bresnan despite his mediocre form this season, I hope he's not ruined by it.

  • Sundar on May 12, 2009, 16:57 GMT

    If you ask any international player, he will tell you that having an axe over his head is not a good thing for his game. Assurance of his place in the team will ensure that the player can demonstrate the best of his abilities. The real problem with England is that they either do not have the depth of talent (like Australia/India), or lack consistency of application. How can "continuity breed contempt"? I see no logic there. What will breed contempt is poor results with the same team, which is because of the real problem that England has. So the whole arc of this article that Bell and Sidebottom have been called in, to show the newbies that their place is questionable in the team - is flawed. If England selectors really did this for such a reason, I sympathize with the English players.

  • Justin on May 12, 2009, 16:38 GMT

    I agree - Collingwood has to be the next to go….he has only ever made runs on absolutely dead pitches…look at his stats…every time he has scored a hundred (except maybe once) at least 2 or 3 other batsmen have made centuries in the same match. And from memory they have only won once when he has made a ton (all mainly draws due to dead pitches). Bell is a good batsman…he's just not cut out for first drop - but slide him down the order and his technique is good enough against the old ball…far better than Collingwoods. As long as you have jokers like Collingwood and Broad in the English team, who for some reason have this great following by journalists with absolutely no performances behind them ever to justify it….the ashes are already gone.

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