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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • neal on August 15, 2009, 23:08 GMT

    We should stick with the side we have had since day one. The same players were good enough when we won at Lords, fair enough few England players could hold thier hands up and say they had a good game at Headingly but lets not go back to bad old days of players having one or two bad scores/spells and they get the chop.

  • Narayanan on August 14, 2009, 11:31 GMT

    It's good thot of promoting Prior in the middle. Exactly I was thinking the same and thot of posting it somewhere.If couple of quick wickets do fell there needs someone with a clear intent of attacking.In the absence of KP, Prior is a good choicec. But changing the opening pair will not be good as they have not done anything worse. This is a good opening pair England have got for some 3 to 4 years. In case if they have to go for change at No 3 they can select Joe Denly or Mark Ramprakash . Former is a good prospect for the future. But the Aussies will definitely win the ashes bcoz they have the momentum and are better in the series both with bat and ball. Their batsmen has scored 7 centuries and have taken 65 wkts where as Englans has 1 centurion and have taken 45 wickets. May the best team win the Ashes.

  • Rajaram on August 14, 2009, 6:42 GMT

    England are surely in panic mode! For Geoff Miller to even to think about Mark Ramprakash is a poor reflection of selection Criteria and does nothing for the younger players. Why at all was he dropped from the Team? But this IS England - chip chop. And we can watch, amusedly.

  • Vincent on August 14, 2009, 4:30 GMT

    "No geniuses on board"?! I suppose Ponting and Clark M are just ordinary batsmen, and Haddin an ordinary keeper-batsman; in his last article Tim compared the Aussies with the poms and metaphorically scorned their lack of suntan - I commented that such gloating was premature, and that Australia's superior batting would eventually tell - then came the 4th Test - say no more. If Australia has no great players in their side, then Tim is a dunce.

  • chris on August 13, 2009, 23:49 GMT

    The fact that Ramps is 39 should be of no consequence to selectors looking for the future. Whatever happens this will be Flintoff's last test match but i hear no comments from people suggesting that he shouldn't be picked because we should be looking to the future. You pick your best team from those available on the day. If that selection comes at the start of their career or at the end of it it matters not a jot. What matters is winning the match and in this case the series and regaining the Ashes. Our batting line up looks like it has no spine to it. Just put the ball outside the off stump and they'll all have a waft and a nick one eventually. Ramps and Key are in form and would add an air of stickability to the side that is sadly lacking now.

  • Mark on August 13, 2009, 23:14 GMT

    Rooboy...if it wasnt for rain it would be 2-2...edgbaston...remember?

  • Charles on August 13, 2009, 19:38 GMT

    Woohoo! Tim deLisle for chairman of selectors! It would be great to see Prior move up the order and to see the svelte Rob Key back in the team. I'm all in favour of Gramps too; he could show Ian Bell the benefits of an 8-year absence from the side. Tim, don't listen to the Aussies with no sense of humour whingeing about your piece; when it comes to mud-slinging, they're great front runners, but if you say something nasty about one of their players, their body language goes to pieces.

  • Anthony on August 13, 2009, 17:32 GMT

    Tim, bit harsh on Siddle, his 5-for and his bowling abilities, especially considering none of the 5 were Bopara, Bell or Collingwood. You know, if it wasn't for Bopara, Siddle would have the most wickets in the series.

  • Balaji on August 13, 2009, 14:47 GMT

    I don't know about the changes that England propose to make, but I do know that Bell is an underwhelming figure. During the one-day series in India,England chased a 9 runs/over target and what did Bell and his partner do : waste the 1st powerplay.He played as if he had 50 overs to chase 100.He has never inspired confidence at no. 3. The Aussies put the man they rate as their best bat at No. 3. Using that logic I think KP should take that slot when he comes back. The English line-up for all its talent looks underwhelming.This series should be a reality check for Bopara after the high against a poor West Indies team.It is time England revamped their middle order if they have to become a quality team.The difference between England and Australia is that the Aussies play around their best performer; England has been too lazy and relied on the Flintoff Pietersen pair to pull them through.

  • Tushar on August 13, 2009, 13:27 GMT

    How can you guys compare Ramps to Nass, Gower or Booney? Ramps is not retired, he is still playing and in contention for the test spot. If he gets it, it will be as hard earned as it would have been for Key ot Trott or whoever else it could be.

  • No featured comments at the moment.