England embark on the battle for balance
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.
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