August 12, 2009

Sending out an SOS

Why Mark Ramprakash should be called up for The Oval, and how things have changed drastically post-Headingley, despite England's denials

There's a good moment in Toy Story when Buzz Lightyear, the magnificently dim space toy, tells Woody, the world-weary cowboy, "Sheriff, this is no time to panic." On the contrary, says Woody, "This is the perfect time to panic." Andrew Strauss isn't dim, but he has been making Lightyear-like noises this week. The fans and pundits are playing the Woody role: they know the time to panic is nigh.

In Cricinfo's poll on who should bat at No. 3 for England at The Oval, Mark Ramprakash has picked up more votes than Ravi Bopara and Ian Bell combined. The Times asked four of its county-cricket writers to name their preferred top five: all four picked Ramps. The Ramps camp also includes Alec Stewart, who knows him well and got the best out of him as England captain, Chris Adams, his current boss, and Scyld Berry, the wise old bird of the press box. Cometh the hour, cometh the Ramps.

If you put Ramprakash up against Bopara, it's a no-brainer. Ramps has the edge on form, technique, experience, local knowledge and record against Australia. There are doubts about both men's temperament, but the last time Ramprakash faced Australia, he made 133 against McGrath and Warne at the Oval, and he has only improved since. Some would prefer Rob Key, for his heart and nous. Both are surely better bets than Bell and Bopara, and better foils to Cook and Collingwood. England have backed a mousy set of batsmen for a long time, and now, with no big beasts to shield them, the mice are being gobbled up.

Selectors earn their keep at moments like these, by taking bold decisions, not offering inertia. Here is a stronger XI than the one that was crushed at Headingley: Strauss, Key (to open with left and right), Cook (better at three than opening), Ramprakash, Prior (sandwiched between two sober citizens), Collingwood, Flintoff, Broad (flattered by that scorecard, but clinging on), Swann, Anderson (if truly fit, otherwise Onions), Sidebottom (tougher than Harmison, fresher than Onions, good control). Twelfth man Rashid, to add zest. No extreme measures, nothing "wholesale", just three sensible changes. It shouldn't just be for one match, either: England's toughest challenge this year is still ahead, in South Africa.

The England management is trying to deny that Headingley changed things. In fact, it changed a lot of things:

1. These Aussies now know they can win in England
Before Headingley, Australia had gone seven Tests in England without a win - from Edgbaston 2005 to Edgbaston 2009; they lost three and drew four. Eight of their XI didn't know how it felt to win a Test in England: only Ricky Ponting, Simon Katich and Michael Clarke had ever done so. And that was with McGrath and Warne there to take a shedload of wickets at under 20. Now, they all know how it feels to win in England without any geniuses on board. They may just have developed a taste for it.

2. Australia are now favourites
This won't bother them, but it could give England a perverse lift. Backing the underdog is so ingrained in our national character, we want to be the underdog too. This England team usually flop before they flourish, and they certainly flopped at Headingley.

3. England are still prone to collapse
One hundred and two is twice as many as 51, but just as useless. And in their next innings, when they might well have bounced back, the middle order was still shellshocked. This is why the same top five should not appear again.

4. England are even more unbalanced than we thought
We knew England's batsmen were dangerously timid, but at Headingley they took this to new extremes. All five of the specialist batsmen were tentative. In their 10 innings, they made just 115 from 304 balls, with 13 fours. The bottom six made 211 from 282 balls with 30 fours and a six. The non-specialists' strike-rate, 74, was exactly double the specialists'. It's not that the tail had all the answers: Broad and Swann, after an hour of merry slogging, should have calmed down and cashed in as the bowlers flagged. It's that England were a weird pantomime horse, consisting of Eeyore at the front and Tigger behind. It's another reason why they need to shake up the middle order. This is no time for the next cab off the rank, to use the selectors' favourite cliché. It's time for a people carrier and a supercar: Flintoff and Ramprakash.

Some would prefer Key over Ramprakash, for his heart and nous, but both are surely better bets than Bell and Bopara. England have backed a mousy set of batsmen for a long time, and now, with no big beasts to shield them, the mice are being gobbled up

5. Australia have a Test attack For the first three Tests, they had a county attack. Now they have added a proper Test bowler, Stuart Clark, and rediscovered another in Mitchell Johnson, who Ian Bell played back into form. With his low arm, Johnson could lose his mojo as quickly as he found it, but if Australia stick with four seamers, they can hide him. With Ben Hilfenhaus showing great control to go with his swing, only Peter Siddle is still below Test standard. Don't write him off, though: he may have been flattered by his figures at Headingley (as was Broad: two worse five-fors you will seldom see), but the Oval could just be the place for his dogged bombing.

6. Flintoff is worth picking as a batsman
This hasn't been true for much of his career, but it is now. Flintoff's 74 at Edgbaston was England's highest individual score of the past two Tests. The selectors have been demanding that he play his part as an allrounder by bowling at least 15 overs a day. But England's middle order is now so wretched that if you were picking on batting form alone, he would be the second choice among the regulars, after Strauss. He is also a fine second slip and a big presence. And once on the field, he would surely be unable to resist having a bowl. Even if he managed only one spell a day, he would still be in the batsmen's minds.

7. Beating the Aussies will mean a lot
After Edgbaston the series was in danger of going flat. It could have finished 1-0 to England, which is no kind of result for a five-Test series in modern Test cricket. Or it could have been 2-0, which would hardly have been deserved after the narrow squeak in Cardiff, and would have left the feeling that it was more a case of Australia being poor than England being good. We Poms just have to grit our bad teeth, and concede that 1-1 is a fair reflection of the series so far. And if England do turn it around and win at The Oval, it will once again be a famous victory. The mice will have outwitted the cat: from Toy Story to Tom and Jerry.

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