July 27, 2014

England's selection errors could lead to series defeat

Their decision to persist with Alastair Cook as captain, and to pick batsmen who can only score runs against weak attacks, will hurt them

England are being led by an impotent captain who is struggling for form © PA Photos

Selection and tactics are critical to winning Test matches and series. So far neither side in the England-India series has come close to getting their selections right, but India have at least displayed some tactical nous to go one up over England. If India alleviate the selection blunders and their fast bowlers stay fit, they have every chance of completing a rare overseas series win against an England side bordering on disarray.

Choosing an international team is about selecting the right type of players and finding the best combination. From the outset India spoke of playing five bowlers, but that's not what they chose. For the first two Tests they played three seamers, a steady slow bowler, and a bits-and-pieces cricketer.

India either need to revert to four frontline bowlers and strengthen the batting, or choose a genuine fifth bowler in R Ashwin, a far superior bowler to Stuart Binny, and one who will also provide some lower-order runs with his skill and temperament.

Apart from the fact that few of the England batsmen are in form, they only have Ian Bell who can take control of an opposing attack. Currently England's batting is unbalanced with too many grafters, and, in addition, MS Dhoni has cleverly implanted the peril of the short-pitched delivery in the minds of batsmen who are uncertain against it. If India don't overdo that tactic it could continue to prove fruitful.

England's selection mistakes are many but they revolve around the misguided assumption that Alastair Cook is the man to lead them in a "brave new world". It should have been obvious following the Ashes disaster that Cook is not the leader to pit against the aggressive Australian Michael Clarke. While England aren't tackling Australia in this series, they will be next season, and part of smart selecting is planning ahead as well as choosing for the present.

England are now stuck with Cook, because the hierarchy has unwisely invested too much in "their man" and they have few alternatives. Consequently, the team continues to falter when they get into a strong position. While Cook maintains that "a captain is only as good as his team", the job of a leader is to make his side better and that's not happening with England.

Cook runs out of ideas very quickly and this shows up alarmingly when the opposition starts to take control. Also, his lack of influence over the bowlers is palpable, as they appear to go on a bouncer spree at the first hint of frustration and Cook is then unable to stop the situation spiralling out of control. Contrast that with Dhoni, who successfully cajoled his experienced fast bowler Ishant Sharma into bombarding the England lower order with short-pitched deliveries.

Opponents are now aware of Cook's inadequacies and are quick to take advantage. If an England team that is in denial could spare a moment of brutal honesty, they would probably admit they too are aware of Cook's fatal flaw. His ineffective leadership is having a debilitating effect on the team and the hierarchy will be doing him a favour if they relieve him of the burden of captaincy. It has now reached the stage where the captaincy is weighing heavily on Cook's mind when he's batting, so not only are England led by an impotent captain, they also have one who is in poor form.

The England selectors are also guilty of picking batsmen who might experience success against lesser sides but will struggle against the stronger attacks. Sam Robson looks very limited; Gary Ballance is a fighter with the right spirit but he's too restricted in his strokeplay to bat at three against a strong attack; and it's hard to believe Moeen Ali has made it to the highest level with a glaring weakness against the short-pitched ball. His habit of taking his eye off the short ball will lead to further trouble against pacier attacks.

India won against the odds at Lord's after losing the toss. They now have the winning of the series in their own hands if they pick the right combination and continue to play smart cricket.

Former Australia captain Ian Chappell is now a cricket commentator for Channel 9, and a columnist