England in South Africa 2009-10 December 8, 2009

England embark on the battle for balance

Andrew Strauss and Andy Flower must ponder a question that was ever-present during the 1990s. How do England balance the Test team without a genuine allrounder?

Kevin Pietersen would like a few runs and Jimmy Anderson has a dodgy knee, but England's warm-up matches in East London this week are important for another reason. Andrew Strauss and Andy Flower must ponder a question that was ever-present during the 1990s, but has been mercifully absent of late. How do England balance the Test team without a genuine allrounder?

The opening encounter against South Africa, at Centurion Park, will be the first in the post-Andrew Flintoff era. This isn't an unknown situation facing England. Flintoff's injury-hit career since his 2005 heroics have given a succession of captain-coach combinations the chance to find a way of filling his role. None of them, from Michael Vaughan and Duncan Fletcher through Peter Moores and now to Strauss and Flower, have found a perfect solution. And this time it's about long-term planning, not an injury stop-gap.

Anderson's troublesome right knee might force the selectors' hands in any event. Even if he is fit to play it would be a huge risk to only have four bowling options in case he breaks down. And if, in the worst-case scenario, he is ruled out then five bowlers could well be needed to cover for his absence.

Still, with or without Anderson, England still need to work out their combination. There are three basic scenarios. Play the extra bowler, the extra batsman or try another allrounder. England spent more than a decade trying the latter option when searching for a replacement for Ian Botham and the result was a string of players - including David Capel, Chris Lewis and Craig White - who couldn't live up to unfair expectations. The current management need to be careful not to fall into a similar trap as they work out their latest structure.

Luke Wright was the surprise selection in the Test squad although Geoff Miller quickly sought to quell any Flintoff comparisons. He is a rapidly developing cricketer whose batting blossomed last season with extra responsibility at Sussex where he averaged 47.90 with two Championship hundreds. He is also a slippery customer with the ball, capable of pacy bursts, but the rough edges still need plenty of smoothing. The question is, would England be stronger with Wright at No. 7 or should a specialist in either skill fill the vacant role? Five bowlers are great if they are all Test-quality operators, otherwise it's a case of weakening two suits and strengthening neither.

Test cricket has been, over the course of history, largely a game for specialists which is why the clutch of great allrounders stand out so vividly. Back in 1999, Gavin Hamilton made his Test debut at the Wanderers on the strength of a strong warm-up period and an impressive World Cup campaign with Scotland. He bagged a pair, went wicketless and never played again. Wright is better than that, much better, but it's a warning worth heeding.

Basically, there is no like-for-like Flintoff out there. As England found with Botham, such cricketers come along once in a generation. However, since 2006 Flintoff virtually played as a specialist bowler - despite his own insistence he remained a batsman first and foremost - and after the India tour where he led England to a creditable 1-1 draw he contributed just four half-centuries in 20 Tests. So, by that logic, England's solution is to pick a bowler to replace Flintoff. If only life could be so simple.

Matt Prior has shown he is capable at No. 6 (providing the balance that Alec Stewart offered in the latter stages of his career) but the problem comes with what follows. In four out of the five Tests Flintoff missed during his final year as a five-day player - Trinidad, the two home Tests against West Indies, and Headingley in the Ashes - England went with Stuart Broad at No. 7. In the other they recalled Ravi Bopara, who scored a hundred in Barbados but was promptly dropped because the bowling attack needed boosting.

Remember the feeling when Broad walked out at Headingley before lunch on the first day with the score on 63 for 5? England need Broad to work out what sort of bowler he is before they muddle his thoughts with notions of becoming a true allrounder. Promotion too soon in any walk of life can be a dangerous thing

Broad can be England's long-term solution (or Adil Rashid when conditions suit, but that prospect is even further away) and the selectors may feel now the time is right to gamble - as England head into a new era - to give him that role. His strokeplay (especially his back-foot driving) has left many observers purring, so the talent is clearly there. However, with the No. 7 spot comes a greater expectation to score runs and the same would apply to the knock-on effect of promoting Graeme Swann one spot higher to No. 8.

Remember the feeling when Broad walked out at Headingley before lunch on the first day with the score on 63 for 5? England need Broad to work out what sort of bowler he is before they muddle his thoughts with notions of becoming a true allrounder. Promotion too soon in any walk of life can be a dangerous thing.

Broad at No. 7 would be the most attacking, almost gung-ho, route England could take - "Let's hit South Africa with all we've got." For better or worse, it would make for entertaining cricket. Strauss will be keen to set an early tone and the potential absence of Jacques Kallis is something for England to take advantage of. However, the top-heavy batting option should not be dismissed out of hand.

The immediate reaction would be to regard such an notion typical English conservatism - an insurance policy for that inevitable day when Dale Steyn has a good session and the scoreline reads 50 for 4 before lunch. But it doesn't have to be viewed in a negative light. Of course it takes 20 wickets to win Tests, but there are different ways to create that situation. Scoreboard pressure shouldn't be taken lightly, especially with England holding a potentially match-winning spinner in Swann.

In the home and away series against New Zealand in 2008 they used six batsmen, although the weakness of the opposition's batting inflated the impact of the bowling unit. For a more pertinent example one needs to go back another couple of years. None other than Strauss was in charge of such a team in 2006 when he was the second stand-in captain following injuries to Michael Vaughan and Flintoff. Back then, Steve Harmison ripped out Pakistan at Old Trafford and Monty Panesar was a match-winner in two Tests. They were supported, to varying degrees, by Sajid Mahmood and Matthew Hoggard.

Comparisons can be made with a potential 2009 line-up. For Harmison read Anderson (if fully fit) as the strike bowler, for the match-winning spinner there's Swann in place of Panesar. Broad is the developing young quick (and far more matured than Mahmood) while either Graham Onions or Ryan Sidebottom could play Hoggard's role. It's not a perfect replica, and England won't have home advantage, but the premise is the same.

The risks involved are clear, too. Four Tests in five weeks is a heavy workload, the weather will be hot, the pitches could be flat. This is where England would have to make use of some part-time bowlers. They have often wasted the bowling skills of their batsmen. Only Paul Collingwood makes the most of what he has. Pietersen has the potential to become a much better offspinner, much as Graeme Hick before him should have been.

If Collingwood and Pietersen could share 15 overs that would give the main four bowlers breathing space. This may sound like a variation on the Luke Wright route, but the difference is that Collingwood and Pietersen are picked for a specialist role and can contribute a second string. They are already proven performers in their main skill.

Five bowlers or four? It's a question that has vexed many teams down the years. England can at least console themselves with the fact that they have been through the Flintoff injury years and know the issues that await them. For South Africa, Jacques Kallis's injury is taking them into new territory and a whole new set of problems. Replacing over 10,000 runs and more than 250 wickets makes England's challenge sound easy.

Andrew McGlashan is assistant editor of Cricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Thomas on December 11, 2009, 2:54 GMT

    We used to play Flintoff at 6. Yet Swann has a better batting average than him, and is presently batting at 9. There's no need for another specialist batter at 7, or a bits and pieces allrounder (wright). With both Swann and Broad being able to bat, the tail enders are far from hopeless with the bat. If Broad and Swann bat at 7 and 8, going by their averages they should contribute more than 60 runs between them. That's only 20 short of a specialist batter combination! Give some credit to our lower order batters - they are no longer of the tuffnell, mullally and frazer variety. They bowl better too. Time they took a little more role, and are given a chance to fulfill their potential with the bat too.

  • Leigh on December 10, 2009, 18:40 GMT

    It all comes down to whether or not the selectors have enough faith in Broad's batting ability. If they do then the team should be: 1) Cook, 2) Strauss, 3) Bell, 4) Pietersen, 5) Collingwood, 6) Prior, 7) Broad, 8) Swann, 9) Anderson, 10) Sidebottom, 11) Onions. If they don't then the team should be: 1) Cook, 2) Strauss, 3) Bell, 4) Pietersen, 5) Collingwood, 6) Prior, 7) Wright, 8) Broad, 9) Swann, 10) Anderson, 11) Onions. Trott is unlucky to make either team only because of such a tough tour (i.e. the tough opposition and the short length) it would be better to go with a more experienced batsman, in this case, Bell. South African pitches are very similar to flat Australian pitches so ideally you would want a four man pace attack with a spinner, the first line-up would be better suited. If Broad can bowl as well as he did in the Ashes and bat like he did at Edgbaston when he made a quick-fire 50 then it will help England immeasureably. The balance of the team all comes down to Broad.

  • Martin on December 10, 2009, 16:37 GMT

    I think Broad, Swann and either Plunkett or Bresnan can supply enough runs at 7-9. Wright looks more like a limited-overs player to me, and until he starts performing consistently well there he doesn't merit his chance in Tests.

    Plunkett for me - it's high time he had another chance.

  • Andy on December 9, 2009, 21:08 GMT

    I suspect the long-term solution will be to have Broad at 7 with Prior at 6, but I don't think that's the best way to go for the first Test. If Broad plays at 7 the top 6 all have to be in good form. It's been a few months since we've been playing Test cricket and it would be a good idea to be solid going into the opening match, rather than being overly aggressive in our selection just to find that a few of our top batsman are in poor touch. When you consider that Cook has had a relatively poor year, KP has been out for a while and Trott has only played one match, playing 5 specialist bowlers seems like too big a gamble. I think picking Wright at 7 with Broad at 8 is the best answer, at least for the first Test.

  • James on December 9, 2009, 18:30 GMT

    I just want to say that if England were to operate a horses-for-courses policy with their selection, based on the look of a pitch on the first morning of a Test match, and Bell was designated as the extra batsman, then he should *not* be played at three. There are a few reasons. Firstly, he can't bat in that position! He has style but provides no substance. Secondly, doing that would mean numbers 3-6 all move one spot down the order - not something you want. Instead, Bell should play at 6 and move Prior down to 7. The reasons for this are: 1) Only one player gets moved to accommodate Bell, which causes a lot less disruption to the batting line-up and 2) Bell scored three hundreds in 4 tests matches in the 2006 home series against Pakistan... from number 6!

  • Narayanan on December 9, 2009, 16:00 GMT

    Please don't think England can get another Ian botham or Freddie. They have to pick the team with the talent they have. Graham Napier can be a useful allrounder as well as luke wright. For this series south africa has a weaker bowling link compared to England. So pick 7 batsmen and four bowlers for the first 2 tests. My team Strauss, Cook, Trott, Pietersen, C'wood, Prior, Wirght, Swann,Plunkett or Anderson as both are swing bowlers, Onions, Broad. As snarly rightly said, trott, c'wood wright and pieteren can share the worload of 25 to 30 overs max among them.

  • Simon on December 9, 2009, 11:12 GMT

    The top order picks itself (Cook, Strauss, Trott, Pieterson, Collywobbles, Prior). If the extra batsman is needed on a bowling wicket shove Bell in at three or four. If it's a true flat track play Broad at 7 with Swann, Plunkett, Jimmy and Onions. If the wicket is something in-between Wright can bat at 7. He's a much better record in first-class cricket than List A so if there is a format he should be playing it's Tests.

  • Gary on December 9, 2009, 11:10 GMT

    In England we don't have a any genuine test quality all-rounders so why pick a quasi one. I think Luke Wright is a decent cricketer but is short of test quality, it qould be a massive gamble to play him. I certainly think the South Africans won't fear him and his first class bowilng average of 42. I don't want tobe too negative about wright but it would be to muxh of a risk to play him. As for alternatives i would have Tim Bresnan in the squad you know what you get with him or as someone else saids in these comments play Plunkett at 9.

  • Baseer on December 9, 2009, 10:26 GMT

    If we play a 5th bowler, it comes down to who you pick. With Anderson and Onions certain to start, I wouldn't pick Sidebottom or Davies. Would opt for Plunkett instead for variety and he also has the added advantage of being able to bat at 8. That should mean a 7-8-9 of Broad, Plunkett, and Swann which will provide decent enough depth and I don't think its much weaker than Flintoff-Broad-Swann at those positions.

    And with Trott and KP to bat at 3 and 4, the batting has a much stronger look than it did during the Ashes, particularly during Headingley when we had Bopara and Bell at those positions!

  • Steve on December 9, 2009, 9:16 GMT

    Obviously it has to be dependent on the conditions. A batting paradise should dictate 5 bowlers, or a more bowler friendly affair should see 4 bowlers. Playing Broad and Swann at 7 and 8 isn't ideal, although they have done a fine job, but why have you completely overlooked Liam Plunkett? If he played at 9 he would give England greater lower order batting depth, and I think he is a better bowling bet on form than Ryan Sidebottom and arguably Graham Onions.

    I'm not against Wright playing - if England can get 13 or 14 overs a day out of him for one or two wickets, as Australia are doing with Shane Watson, he could be useful - but he would need to contribute runs and his batting at this level is untried. It would be a risk, but England do have options whichever way they go. South Africa should be more worried about THEIR balance - Steyn and Harris at 8 and 9? England will run through their tail.

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