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Despite the Test series whitewash against Pakistan, England are unlikely to make many changes for the short tour of Sri Lanka
February 27, 2012
In a less enlightened, more chaotic age of England cricket, the announcement of the squad to tour Sri Lanka might be anticipated with some anxiety by those who lost the Test series in the UAE 3-0 to Pakistan. There was a time such a reverse would have precipitated much wailing, gnashing of teeth and the dropping of several players.
Those days are, largely, gone. Despite suffering a Test series whitewash against Pakistan, England will keep faith with the majority of the squad that travelled to the UAE. While it is accepted that most of the batsmen endured a poor series, responsibility has been taken collectively and those that struggled in the UAE will be given an opportunity to show they have learned the lessons. England will play two Tests in Sri Lanka and no limited-overs cricket. The squad will be announced on Tuesday at 9.30am UK time and most of the players informed after the final Twenty20 against Pakistan on Monday night.
The squad that lost in the UAE was, by and large, the same one that took England to No. 1 in the Test rankings. While they have questions to answer in Asian conditions, most impartial judges would agree the 12 players who represented England in the Tests against Pakistan were the best available. Failure has been, in part, blamed on the lengthy lay-off that preceded the tour. Time will tell if the answer is that simple, but it is a mistake England will not make again.
Besides, the continuity of selection policy has served England well in recent years. Whereas desperate selectors called upon 29 players in the Ashes of 1989, they utilised just 13 in 2010-11. It is not coincidental that England lost the first series 4-0 and won the second 3-1. Often, when it comes to selection, less is more.
Ian Bell, who averaged just 8.5 in the Test series in the UAE, will be included, as will Kevin Pietersen (11.16) and, of course, the captain Andrew Strauss (25). Indeed, Bell and Strauss will be among those travelling to Sri Lanka early to gain extra acclimatisation time. To suffer one poor tour may be regarded as a misfortune by the selectors; only after suffering two will the selectors regard it as career threatening.
That is not to say that there may not be a couple of changes. Eoin Morgan, in particular, is waiting uncomfortably. England have invested a lot of time in Morgan and will be loathe to abandon him now. But he has endured a wretched tour of the UAE and, unlike some of his middle-order colleagues, does not have the excellent record of past achievement in Test cricket to suggest recent struggles are any more than a blip. He averaged just 13.66 in the Test series against Pakistan and has progressed beyond 31 only four times in his last 21 Test innings. He will have found little comfort in Andy Flower's distinctly equivocal backing.
"He's had little glimpses of success," Flower, the England coach, said. "I think he's got a couple of Test centuries. But he's had a tough tour of the UAE, there's no doubt about that. And I think his record would suggest that he's found Test cricket pretty tough. I think he's averaging about 30 so he's got some work to do in that regard."
There are several men pushing for his place in the side. The first is Ravi Bopara who enjoyed a more than respectable ODI series in the UAE (he averaged 54, scoring half-centuries in each of his two innings) and could be used as a third seamer in a Test attack including two specialist fast bowlers and two spinners. Bopara is capable of generating reverse swing as a bowler and there is guarded optimism that, aged 26, he has added the requisite composure to his undoubted talent.
Probable England squad
Samit Patel, too, could win a place on his first Test tour. While it is hard to see Patel's left-arm spin squeezing Monty Panesar out of the team, he could provide another option at No.6 and fill the role as third spinner. More realistically, he could be utilised as back-up should either Panesar or Graeme Swann sustain an injury.
And then there is Jonny Bairstow. He could replace Morgan as a batsman or Steve Davies as reserve wicketkeeper. While it may seem that one very good T20I innings has overshadowed a modest Lions tour of Sri Lanka - Bairstow averaged 24 in five List A games on the Lions' tour of Sri Lanka, but helped England win the second Twenty20 in the UAE with a very fine, unbeaten innings of 60 - the 22-year-old from Yorkshire has shown the talent and temperament required to thrive at the top level. He is not the finished article with bat or gloves, but the England team management have identified a special quality - a cool, inner steel - in Bairstow that could, with guidance, develop into something that could serve them well for many years.
It would be a harsh blow for the blameless Davies, but Flower and co. have shown they are not afraid of taking tough decisions if they think it for the best. There is little room for sentiment in the England camp.
The bowling attack performed admirably in the UAE and requires little alteration. The unfortunate Chris Tremlett, aged 30 and with an injury history that would require several volumes to relate, was forced home early from the UAE for back surgery and may well have played his last international game. Steven Finn, Tim Bresnan and Graham Onions all wait in the wings for a tour on which two seamers may well suffice. It is just possible that Finn could edge out Anderson when it comes to Test selection, though he may have to wait a little while yet.
The Test series in Sri Lanka also sees Strauss' return as captain. Flower said he felt it too early to draw any conclusions about the experiment with three captains - on each for Tests, ODIs and T20s - but those who believe it will cause division within the team misunderstand the England set-up. The respect in which Strauss is held by his team is immense. Personal ambition from other captaincy candidates will not be responsible for his downfall.
A lack of runs might be, however. While no-one doubts Strauss' qualities as a leader or his past as a batsman, his record of just one century in his last 46 Test innings - and none in his last 21 going back to November 2010 - is a growing concern. Strauss actually struggled less than some in the UAE but, aged 35 within the week, he needs a much improved tour to prove to himself, as much as anyone, that he still has what it takes to thrive at international level. He will not lack support from the England team or management but, as Flower suggested when talking about captaincy in general, runs and wickets are the primary currency on which players can be judged. While Alastair Cook is not pushing for promotion, his success as ODI captain in the UAE suggests England does have a viable alternative.
"He's a very fine leader; a very fine cricketer." Flower said when asked about Strauss. "He's done some great things for England cricket. All the guys realise when you are made captain it does not mean you're captain forever. It's like almost a playing position, you'll be constantly monitored. If as a player you go through extended periods of bad form, someone else will be pushing you. Same as a captain. You've got to ensure you're doing the job well for England. You're not given the job for life."
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfoFeeds: George Dobell
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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