Over the next fortnight, the England selectors will have to name a tour party for Australia. As we well know, two thirds of the players pick themselves, while five, maybe six, places remain uncertain - worryingly uncertain. Nothing new has been learnt during the summer of mainly successful Test matches, at least nothing that reveals answers to questions nobody can answer. Generally, the ball moved around in the air and off the seam, which made life awkward for batsmen and fun for James Anderson and his team of henchmen. When it did not, Moeen Ali proved that the hours put in with Saqlain Mustaq have been worthwhile. Because of the loss to West Indies at Headingley, the opportunity to look at Mason Crane in the last Test of the summer at Lord's was missed. Maybe Crane got lucky: as the clich goes, you are often a better cricketer out of the team than in it.
Already sure to be disembarking down under in late October are Alastair Cook, Mark Stoneman, Joe Root, Ben Stokes, Jonny Bairstow, Moeen, Chris Woakes, Toby Roland-Jones, Stuart Broad and Anderson. Of those ten, injuries notwithstanding, nine probably play in the first Test at the Gabba on November 23rd, the final choice lying between Woakes and Roland-Jones, unless Mark Wood is fit and pumping out hard yards.
Numbers three and five in the batting order are a conundrum. Ideally, for a five-Test-match tour of Australia three specialist openers would be included, which gives Keaton Jennings a real chance. The feeling is that he suffered the fate of many before him against Vernon Philander on fruity English pitches but that batting on the hard, true Australian surfaces might better suit his method. The other options are Haseeb Hameed, who has no form or fluency, and Nick Gubbins, who is one of two potentially exciting picks, should the selectors find the courage. We will come to the other in a moment. Gubbins plays confidently against the short ball and, in general, likes to take control of things out in the middle, a character trait that is close to essential for cricket in Australia. The trouble with Gubbins, like most of the options, is a lack of runs to influence opinion. He is not alone in this regard. Usually at this time of year someone makes a charge, but top-order batsmen around the counties have gone all pusillanimous on us right now. Or, like Gubbins, they are injured.
Anyway, this reserve opener could bat at three. The Kookaburra ball is at its most threatening for about 20 overs, so a thought is to try to soak it up. Another is to take it on, but finding the candidate for such a job against a powerful fast bowling line-up is beyond difficult. Root would bat at three but his mind is set on four. Thus, Tom Westley is still a runner. And Dawid Malan. Maybe Alex Hales too. Even James Vince. Of these, Vince is the most gifted and certainly the most natural player off the back foot, and Hales the most destructive. Trevor Bayliss has suggested that those in possession are the most likely but there is no logic in picking players who clearly lack self-belief. Indeed, the logic is to take those with the most self-belief.
"Few teams, if any, succeed in Australia without aggression and self-belief. More often it is those who hurt, not those who hold, that come away from there smiling"
Australian cricketers prey on insecurity. Think back four years to the crushing of Jonathan Trott, who simply should not have been there, so wretched was the state of his mind. Given the lack of any high-quality defender, the preference should be for a player who, on his day, can do some damage. The early exchanges in Ashes Test matches are for the bold not the reticent.
Vince is a potentially exciting pick. Ask around the new-ball bowlers and they tell you he can bat better than anyone out there when his mind is switched on. He had a run against Pakistan and Sri Lanka last summer, rather as Westley and latterly Malan have had this summer. He made some 30s and 40s - promising innings but hardly deliverance. The bowlers who rate him understandably worry that he gets caught at cover, but add, with some relish, that he is "a proper player".
This may sound ridiculous, but you have to show Australia you can play. If you scratch around in that English way of polite nudge and hurdle, you are history. If you stare them down and play a few good shots in response to provocation, you will soon win over the whole country. It is the one reason Hales should be considered. He hugely impresses in one-day cricket and wowed them in the Big Bash, a show which, for better or worse, makes many a name. Australians are conscious of his ability and thrust but they have pinned him back in a couple of one-day games and are waiting to see what else he has got. Now, you may reasonably say that delighting a T20 audience is no kind of a barometer for the selection of a touring party for five Test matches in Australia. Fair enough, but there are seven batsmen listed here who might step onto the Gabba at first drop, and the only one with an unarguable case is the captain, who doesn't think it his best spot. Choosing the right man is a damn difficult and risky business.
Let's go to No. 5 and cut to the chase. Stokes is by far the best bet, a brilliant player in anyone's book, but England are reluctant to move him from what they see as a pivotal position at No. 6. Malan is in possession and by no means has disgraced himself. Annoyingly, he threw away a couple of chances to close the deal, a bit like Vince last summer, and will now be squeezed by Root's desire to have Gary Ballance back in the fold. Root believes Ballance can hold the ball in midfield, so to speak, and let the talent work its magic in the spaces around him. The inside money has Ballance at five in Brisbane. The gambler's money might be invested in one of Vince or Hales, with either Jennings or Malan at three.
The other way to play this five game is to move Stokes, Bairstow and Moeen up a place, have Woakes at eight and pick the bolter, Crane, as an outlier bowling alternative. Now that would show some imagination. Unsurprisingly, it's the move Shane Warne would make, less from a legspinner's view and more from his belief that England's powerful middle order is too often left to clear up a mess rather than ensure there isn't a mess in the first place. He is nonplussed at the idea of ordinary players batting above bloody good players. (Warne's team on Twitter is Cook, Stoneman, Root, Hales, Stokes, Bairstow, Moeen, Woakes, Broad, Crane, Anderson.) Then he tells you about the bounce and turn as the match goes on at the Gabba, his favourite place to bowl, and the need for attacking variety in Adelaide. Then he talks about the way legspin can clean up the tail. He is a persuasive fellow.
While on the spin front, apparently Adil Rashid is not a flavour of the month and Samit Patel is not a Test match cricketer. Really? Clearly Samit's bulk goes against him, an argument from which he cannot escape and which makes him pretty daft not to have addressed it at least to some degree. But Samit is a fabulous cricketer and the most feisty competitor. He is also the most obvious cover for Moeen's all-round role in the England plan.
The quicks pick themselves, with one of Wood or Jake Ball added to those listed above. The other, presumably, will be in Australia with England Lions anyway. Wood is important. His pace gives the England attack some of the spice needed when the ball refuses to move sideways and the pitch appears easy-paced. Indeed, he might be a crafty option to Crane - assuming Woakes is firing on all cylinders and positioned at No. 8 - though the England camp doesn't much rate the idea of six bowlers. It should, though, remain open to potential and consider the relative values of an uncertain batsman against the impact of short and perhaps telling bursts of pace or wristspin. Ball is not to be underestimated in the kind of role so convincingly undertaken by Tim Bresnan in 2010-11.
The final piece of this jigsaw is the second wicketkeeper, a role that is a straight choice between Jos Buttler and the much fancied Ben Foakes of Surrey, who is widely thought to be the best gloveman going around and a batsman worthy of the title. Buttler is a fantastic ball striker, and a popular figure in the dressing-room, but has made little first-class impression this summer; Foakes is playing with ongoing promise and substance for Surrey. I think I'd go to Kumar Sangakkara for an answer on this one.
". All thoughts should be on Brisbane, and Brisbane alone, when the selectors choose their men for this cricket tour that has the ability to define a cricketer's place in the game"
Few teams, if any, succeed in Australia without aggression and self-belief. There have been occasional moments for those who stay in their shell - Rahul Dravid is one recently shining example of how patience, by virtue of an excellent technique, can outmanoeuvre power, as, going back a bit, was Geoffrey Boycott; Cook is another - but more often it is those who hurt, not those who hold, that come away from Australia smiling.
The key Test match is the first one. South Africa were lucky last year to begin at the WACA - on a less fearsome pitch than it once was - rather than in Brisbane, and to find an Australian team badly out of kilter. Under Faf du Plessis' savvy leadership the South Africans won in Perth and easily in Hobart too. Then Australian heads rolled, Steve Smith made a stirring speech, new faces were introduced, and the bite back began with a fine victory under lights in Adelaide, despite du Plessis' superb first-innings hundred.
Australia are a better side now than then. Pat Cummins and James Pattinson are in the pack and Cummins is an almost certain start at the Gabba. In 2010-11, England escaped from this challenging place with a draw. It set them up for the series. All thoughts should be on Brisbane, and Brisbane alone, when the selectors choose their men for this cricket tour that has the ability to define a cricketer's place in the game.
My 12 (sort of), gulp - Cook, Stoneman, Vince or Hales, Root, Ballance, Stokes, Bairstow, Moeen, Woakes/Wood/Roland-Jones (fitness-dependent), Broad, Anderson. Also in the 16 - Malan, Foakes, Crane. If they are taking 17, then both Ball and Samit come into the mix.
This is both an easy and difficult tour party to pick. The unusual problem is that the difficult part is in key positions. Keep it simple gentlemen, remembering above all else that there is no substitute for desire.