July 13, 2009

England picked the wrong team

In their bowling, they went for quantity and solidity over quality and incisiveness, and none of their batsmen bar one can take a match by the scruff of its neck

This may have been the most heavily reported Test match in history. The British newspapers, which have mostly scaled down their cricket coverage, veered the other way when the magic word Ashes came along. Last weekend you couldn't move for preview supplements, and once the match began, some papers were running not two sidebars a day, not four, but six. Even a cricket-loving newspaper junkie was struggling to keep up. The sports editors were rewarded with a thrilling and very British finish as a packed house greeted every dogged defensive shot like a six. And yet still, among all the thousands of well-chosen words that poured out, some things went unsaid. There was an elephant in the media centre. It was this: England picked the wrong team.

The selectors, once all-purpose whipping boys, tend to get an easy ride these days. Fans and pundits tend to agree that there are no alternatives to the regular batsmen, apart from Ian Bell. It's acknowledged that there is competition for bowling slots, but the selectors' choice of five for this match still went widely unquestioned. So let's look at what they did.

They dropped Tim Bresnan for Andrew Flintoff - no arguing with that; when a star is fit again, the understudy returns to the wings. But England also dropped Graham Onions for Monty Panesar. This meant sacrificing a bowler in top form for one having a mid-career crisis. The decision didn't just fly in the face of common sense: it ignored the modern truth that turning pitches often help the wily seamer too. On form, Onions should have been in the first three bowlers picked for Cardiff, with Jimmy Anderson and Graeme Swann.

It used to be assumed that if England played badly, heads would roll. That led to far too much chopping and changing, and the policy was rightly torn up. But during the David Graveney era, the selectors swung too far the other way. Even Graveney himself went on too long, keeping the chairmanship for nearly 11 years. Geoff Miller has maintained Graveney's conservatism, most strikingly when he handed central contracts to Michael Vaughan and Steve Harmison last autumn. England show ruthlessness very occasionally, as when Vaughan dropped Harmison and Matthew Hoggard for Anderson and Stuart Broad in New Zealand. But mostly they stick rather than twist. And the worse they play, the less likely they are to make changes. On Saturday, when England were rubbish, the ex-pros formed a chorus to say "Don't panic".

England show ruthlessness very occasionally. But mostly they stick rather than twist. And the worse they play, the less likely they are to make changes

Nobody was suggesting panicking. Just taking a long cool look at whether this was really the best XI. Let's consider the bowlers first, as they win matches. England went for quantity and solidity rather than quality and incisiveness. Three of their five choices were essentially defensive - Flintoff, Broad and Panesar. In 41 appearances between them since October 2005, Flintoff and Broad have only one five-for. Both can summon a cutting edge when they have to, but they seldom sustain it for a whole innings. Broad is, as yet, a fourth seamer who has accidentally found himself taking the new ball. Panesar has no shortage of five-fors - eight in 39 Tests - but he needs a bouncy surface to impose himself, which is why he has flourished at Old Trafford and Perth and struggled in the subcontinent. On this curry of a pitch, even Paul Collingwood was a better bet as a bowler than Monty.

It's not how many bowlers you pick: it's how many attacking bowlers. England's quintet looked anodyne before the match began, although not even a sceptic could have foreseen how toothless they would turn out to be. As it was, they batted better than they bowled. In fact they batted better than most of the batsmen; over the two innings, the last five wickets produced more runs than the first five - 194 + 182, easily beating 245 + 70.

The idea that Bell is the only alternative to the batting also needs scrutinising. If there is nobody else, it's because Vaughan has retired, Rob Key is out of form, and the selectors have shown blind loyalty to one or two others. They have lavished 44 Test caps on Alastair Cook, who seldom turns a match. Shane Warne said Monty hadn't played 33 Tests, he had played the same Test 33 times, which was harsh but fair. You could say the same about Cook, who started brightly but has never gone up a gear. Simon Katich, who is no more talented, now reels off match-winning hundreds. Cook has made a hundred in an England win just three times, two of them against West Indies, one against a weakened Pakistan.

When you don't have a born No. 3, a Ponting or a Dravid, the classic plan B is to pick a third opener, a David Boon or a Mark Butcher. England don't have a third opener in sight. Why? Because they have picked Cook so often. England's five specialist batsmen have the same problem as their five bowlers: most of them can't take a match by the scruff of the neck.

Kevin Pietersen can, obviously, when not going through with a crazy shot like a bore in the bar who insists on finishing his point. Ravi Bopara has the personality, but it would be asking a lot for him to do it against Australia at this stage (when Ponting was his age, he was down at No. 6). Strauss, Cook and Collingwood - heroic though he was yesterday - strike fear into nobody. Like Flintoff, Broad and Panesar, they shouldn't all be in the same team. If England beat Australia with this line-up, they will be defying gravity.

Tim de Lisle is the editor of Intelligent Life magazine and a former editor of Wisden

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Luke on July 15, 2009, 8:16 GMT

    You surely would not put KP at 3! That is suicide. If you were 1 for anything you could simply add another wicket. He would be useless going in first drop, I think 4 is even too high. If he can demonstrate composure and do away with the childish and petulent " that's the way I bat" rubbish then perhaps put him up, perhaps. For a time he did do this in the first innings but you need to go on with it. He can bat as well as anyone so expectations should be high for him - come on KP: toughen up! Your country needs you!

  • Benjamin on July 15, 2009, 7:00 GMT

    Dacha - best comments on the board. All workmen with little fan fair who got the job done. All averaging under 30, and all tasted victory. This is what we have now in Johnson, Siddle, and Hilf and lets hope the selectors stick with them as they have something about them. Beating SA in their own back yard was no fluke. Lee would be the worst bowler to ever claim 300 scalps. A pass mark for a quality bowler it to average under 30. From 29-26 great, under 25, you are top shelf. He's outside all those categories and has never taken 10 wicket haul in tests.

    As for Collingwood, the criticism is harsh but he's not going to win games for his side. Just look at Adelaide where he made 200+ off 500+ balls and the side still lost. He might bore the opposition to defeat but at best he can save games.

    It's time to forget 2005 chaps. 2006-07 was the last encounter and it appears this Eng side is just as pathetic. Strauss said there were positives - our tail showed fight mahahahaha. He is a joke.

  • Shaun on July 14, 2009, 17:41 GMT

    England did not pick the wrong team, they picked the best team they have for that pitch. Some silly names suggested in these comments from retired or nearly retired players or players that are simply not good enough at test level ( NAPIER, PATEL?).

    Yes, Cook is running out of chances but he is the best we have and is proven at this level scoring centuries against Aus, India and the only century the team scored in Sri Lanka. Bopara is no number 3 but hes better than the timid Bell or nervous wreck Shah. As Peeeeet suggested, put KP at 3 and Bopara at 5. Once again someone finds a reason to criticise Collingwood even after what hes just done. Sure he may not strike fear but least he has fight, unlike most of the others. Sure KP does intimidate, but he can't when hes just found another stupid way to get out. The bowling attack was correct, they just should have done better. The pitch needed two spinners and they should have bowled better.

    Changes, Harmison> Flintoff and Onions> Panesar.

  • Peter on July 14, 2009, 15:05 GMT

    Just a few quick further comments...the criticism of Collingwood is unwaranted - this is a man with a double century against the same opposition in their country, the highest run scorer for them in the test and more than handy part timer. If PK comes in at 3, Collingwood can be the rock that the middle order is built around. I also was of the belief that the side's best batsman comes in at 3, not another opener, hence you see over time the likes of Ponting, Kallis, Bradman, Habibul Bashar playing at number 3. So give KP a go there, maybe a bit of added responsibility may sort out his ego. And the spinners need to learn to bowl slower and flight the ball more. Too often were balls up in the high 90km/h mark, they need to get down to the high 70s to low 80s. Thats where Warne was and he was reasonably succesful you could say. Quick balls every now and then to mix it up but generally should be slower. Hauritz was bowling around that speed, hence why he outbowled the English spinners.

  • Alan on July 14, 2009, 14:47 GMT

    I agree totally, the fact england pick, arguably, 4 players, and certainly 3 based on ability in two disciplines is indicative of the problem. To scared of the top 5s ability to post totals they pick an average wicket keeper because he can bat, an all rounder and two bowlers that have either earned or kept their place because of their batting.

    This is slightly harsh on 3 of the 4. Swann has proved the most effective spinner, though it's not doubt his inclusion was eased due to his batting. Prior has improved and Flintoff was a match winning star. For broad to have kept his place as a bowler because of a few 50s is unforgiveable though.

    The problem now for the team is what you have touched on with the openers, the wrong players have been given chances. Tremlett, Kabir Ali and Onions have sat in the wings so Broad could develop so long it's unthinkable to give the former two another chance now and what's the betting they will return to Harmison if they need a quick?

  • Andrew on July 14, 2009, 7:04 GMT

    I agree that rather too much of the England team lack offensive (as the opposite of defensive) players, but the cupboard isn't that deep.

    As suggestions, England could open with KEY, DENLY or PETERS as opposed to Cook, who looks out of form and still has technical issues. All three are aggressive batsmen and good fielders and all are currently in form.

    The current middle order I am actually okay with, so would stick with Bopara, Pietersen, Collingwood and Prior for now.

    With Flintoff again injured, and neither Broad nor Panesar (batting heroics notwithstanding) not firing, to which alas could also be added Swann, I would suggest the following attack for Lord's:

    HARMISON, SIDEBOTTOM, Anderson, ONIONS and RASHID. It means that there would be a long tail, Rashid would have to bat at 7, so as that is not an option leave out Anderson and bring in a left-field choice of NAPIER who is an aggressive cricketer in all aspects of his play.

    Any thoughts?

  • Terry on July 14, 2009, 4:07 GMT

    SOS to Michael Vaughan anyone? Yes he retired, but wouldnt come back given a chance? Yes he's been out of form, but his mental strength is part of what made him a class batsmen, plus his captaining nouce, as Strauss needs direction. Bopara is so far out of his depth.Ok he made 3 Hundreds in 3 Tests, but that was against...The WI's who haven't peaked since Ambrose/Walsh, but becomes Englands saviour at No.3. Time he was sent packing, he's not test quality and Cook just survives. Mark Ramprakash is heading for his 40's but he's still racking up runs. 3 Hundreds this year averaging 80.11 & career average just short of 54.& the bowling was abortionate. When the ball isnt swinging, Andersons dead & Broad is a crock. They need a bowler,similar to/or Harmison that will hurry the batsmen up. The pace attack was 1 Dimensional, & spinners were poor.

    1.Strauss2.Cook3.Vaughan 4.Ramps5.KP6.Freddie (Fit?)7.Prior8.Swann 9.Sidebottom10.Harmison11.Anderson BRING BACK VAUGHAN! A LiL Dreamy perhaps? :)

  • Manjunath on July 14, 2009, 3:14 GMT

    This is a balanced article and thanks for that to Tim. It clearly shows that Englands think tank has got it wrong for this test. But it shouldn't be gravity defying to beat Aussie with this setup. England need to get their combination right and everyone should be putting their 100% for the next 4 tests and a proper strategy in place that backs the team selection (having 2 spinners and putting a aggressive strategy to bat is unnecessary given the totals and not able to use them on 4th and 5th day)

    Though I would say Flintoff is more of a asset when he is fully fit. Apart from him and Pietersen, others need to pick their act together.

    Should be a intriguing contest when all come to play.

  • David on July 14, 2009, 3:05 GMT

    I want you to think about some people, Merv Hughes, Damian Fleming, Paul Reiffel, Jason Gillespy, Terry Alderman and Alan Davidson. All of them have profoundly better bowling averages than Brett Lee, Andrew Flintoff, Steve Harmison, Jimmy Anderson and Sir Ian Botham, yet how are they perceived in the consciousness of the English public. Workmen, tradesmen and good back ups to the real stars of the game. How many Englishmen would prefer Davo to Botham or Flintoff, Reiffel to Harmison? Not many I bet! And here lies the difference between English cricket and Australian, Australia would rather be good than look good, we would much rather the hard working and driven than the glorious but damged. There are some young men bowling for Australia that have yet to truly find there feet but when they do you had better watch out. If England want to be good it's time to find a few blokes and get rid of the chaps.

  • chobulre on July 14, 2009, 0:16 GMT

    I would like to be these 11 members in england team for lords test or entire ashes series. Replace Broad with Onions Replace panesar with harmison if Flintoff injured replace with him by Ian Bell . rest of the players as same as 1st Ashes'09 test. If england play with this team i guess they will win in lord's. After ashes it's better to replace anderson with better bowler. Anderson and Broad are in consistency bowlers. and also better to bring patel after ashes series for replacemet of Swann & Panesar..

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