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

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