June 10, 2014

The joy of selection roulette

The build-up to the Sri Lanka series has recalled the bad old days of inconsistent England selection - and provided some fantasy for fans once again

England's old-fangled selection carousel created an overload of retro excitement ahead of the announcement of the squad for the first Test against Sri Lanka. This was not supposed to happen anymore. Central contracts and a new culture of consistent selection had changed English cricket completely.

Yet now we have, at least for the time being, apparently returned to an age when indecision was final and the selectors were like impatient channel hoppers. The whole experience has been like opening a memory box, a trip back to the 1980s and 1990s - or maybe even 1921. That was the last time England picked three debutants in consecutive Tests, which is likely to happen again with the inclusion of Sam Robson, Moeen Ali and Chris Jordan.

In the golden periods of 2004-05 and 2009-11 in particular, the selectors' vocabulary barely extended beyond that of the lonely pub drinker: same again. Such an approach was particularly striking in that it came at a time when wider society was becoming more impatient and a slave to choice. History should record David Graveney and particularly Geoff Miller, who brought an unprecedented level of consistency in selection, as enormously significant players in the triumphs of recent times.

We know such an approach is a good thing. There is an obvious correlation between that and success, though which is the chicken and which the egg is debatable. Yet for all that, sometimes it's fun to go back to a time when hardly anybody was guaranteed a place; to grow down and embrace the erratic, often illogical, judgement of our childhood.

It is a different form of fantasy cricket. In this world, nobody slaps one to cover, nobody has a pitch map that is more Jackson Pollock than Shaun Pollock, and nobody drops a dolly at mid-on. Reality is invariably more mundane than fantasy, which is why it is human nature to search for something more, no matter how unrealistic it might be. And given the list of exciting players omitted for various reasons - Kevin Pietersen, Eoin Morgan, Ben Stokes, Jos Buttler, Steven Finn, Graham Onions, Monty Panesar - the build-up to last week's squad announcement might be the most fun we have all summer.

There is a little boy or little girl in all of us who takes inordinate pleasure in compiling lists and picking teams. For most, picking the best and most obvious team - the Miller approach - won't do. Where is the fun in that? We have to put our own spin on it, with at least one left-field selection to hint tantalisingly at intelligence and individuality. In the 1980s and 1990s, even the press pack rarely agreed; although there were occasional examples, like Aftab Habib, whose selection was flagged so often in the media as to become inevitable, such consistency of thought was unusual. The Saturday morning before a Test was not complete until you had discreetly perused all the papers in WH Smith to see which squad each correspondent had suggested.

The squad announcement itself was the cricket fan's equivalent of the FA Cup draw. Each name not only confirmed one man's presence, it made you scramble into a high-speed calculation regarding the implications for the rest of the squad

The selectors were working not so much from longlists as bloodylonglists. Upon his appointment at the start of the 1994 summer, Ray Illingworth and his assistants put together a 63-man list of "everyone we thought had even a slight chance of playing for England". It included players who were never capped, like Duncan Spencer, Harvey Trump, Andre van Troost and Paul Pollard - though not Joey Benjamin, who was in the full side by the end of that summer.

Benjamin was rewarded for his spectacular county form with Surrey. When Jonathan Agnew was not selected despite taking 101 wickets in 1987, the astronomer* Patrick Moore criticised England's selectors and wrote to Agnew in sympathy. Other amateur selectors prioritised horses for courses, experience or youth. It became a cliché to say that England should bin everyone over the age of 25 and start again, perhaps with an older, uncapped father figure like David Byas, Peter Roebuck or Mark Nicholas as captain. The precedent of Australia in the late 1980s would be cited, as if the mere selection of 11 youngsters would essentially guarantee a romantic, Hollywood ascent to world domination after the necessary rite-of-passage thrashings in the beginning.

The squad announcement itself was the cricket fan's equivalent of the FA Cup draw: huddled by a wireless, trying to process everything as the names were announced in alphabetical order. It was a fierce brain strain, which would have been far less exacting had the players been announced in vague batting order. Each name not only confirmed one man's presence, it made you scramble into a high-speed calculation regarding the implications for the rest of the squad.

Sometimes it was obvious. Angus Fraser found out that he was missing from the 1994-95 Ashes tour when Illingworth skipped from Phil DeFreitas to Mike Gatting. That allowed scope to bristle with confused adolescent outrage, both at Fraser's omission and the manner of it. Such scope was never greater than in 1989, when England famously picked 29 players in the six Ashes Tests; only the most tragic of cricket tragics can name all 29. Ted Dexter, the chairman of selectors, couldn't. He infamously referred to Malcolm Devon at one stage.

The same summer, Dexter settled once and for all the debate as to whether honesty is always the best publicity by telling the media that their latest selection, Alan Igglesden, was England's 14th-choice seamer. Imagine a selection like Darren Pattinson happening for almost every Test and you are somewhere near the culture of the time.

Igglesden made his debut alongside John Stephenson, who became part of a couple of clubs that we thought were becoming extinct until last year: the one-cap wonder, and the player who is called up for the last Test of the summer at The Oval and never seen again. Between 1989 and 1999, Stephenson, Igglesden, Neil Williams, Steve Watkin, Joey Benjamin, Alan Wells, Peter Martin, Ben Hollioake and Ed Giddins were all given debuts or recalls at The Oval; all missed the subsequent tour and/or were never capped again. We don't yet know whether Chris Woakes or Simon Kerrigan, who played against Australia at The Oval last summer, will end up as one-cap wonders.

As things stand England have 96 one-cap wonders, though Gary Ballance will not be in that club for long. Then there are thousands of no-cap wonders. They aren't in Wisden or on Statsguru; but there was a time when someone, somewhere just knew they were the player the England team was missing.

10:22:09 GMT, 10 June 2014: Patrick Moore was initially identified as an astrologer