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September 23, 2013
Gary Ballance, Yorkshire's Zimbabwe-born batsman, is the most surprising selection in England's squad to defend the Ashes in Australia.
Ballance is joined by Ben Stokes, the Durham allrounder, and Warwickshire's fast bowler Boyd Rankin as three England players who can only fall back on limited-overs international experience as they undertake their first senior tour. Michael Carberry, the Hampshire opener, provides the top-order batting cover.
Ballance may be a surprising selection, but do not suggest, as one observer did, that it could be perceived as "left field". England's management prides itself in long-term planning. "There are never any left-field decisions," said the national selector Geoff Miller. "He has performed extremely well for Yorkshire and for the Lions. He has justified his selection."
Monty Panesar, selected as back-up spinner to Graeme Swann, also wins England's trust after a troubled summer in which he was released by Sussex after urinating from high upon a Brighton nightclub bouncer in the early hours of the morning.
England have been assured by Essex, where Panesar has been on loan and taken 12 wickets in five Championship matches, that he has rediscovered his stability and purpose. England have taken those assurances on trust and it will now be incumbent upon them not just to monitor his behaviour, but contribute to his welfare.
"Monty had his problems which we have worked hard to rectify - and he has worked hard to rectify - in the last six weeks or so," Miller said. "There is a very strong management in that side to help with all aspects. He appreciates he has made errors and he is very sure those errors are behind him."
Ballance, schooled at Harrow, is the latest example of England's trust in players of southern African heritage, following the likes of Kevin Pietersen, Jonathan Trott and - it now seems temporarily - Nick Compton. Miller expressed himself unconcerned by the continued habit of drawing talent from afar, contending that all the players, Ballance included, had become successful in the English system.
Ballance made an inglorious second-ball duck on his England one-day debut against Ireland in Dublin, but the left-hander's aggressive middle-order batting has constantly showed up well for Yorkshire in a season during which he has so far scored 1,107 first-class runs at average of 55.35. England have also liked what they have seen at close hand on England Lions duty.
Winners and losers
His pugnacious batting talents are now likely to make him a direct rival to another Yorkshire batsman, Jonny Bairstow, for the No. 6 spot. He can expect a place in the one-day squad, too: few can challenge his career average of 56 in 50-over cricket.
Stokes's aim will be to provide additional competition for that No. 6 position, although his opportunity is only likely to arise if England, who habitually prefer a four-strong attack, opt instead for five bowlers because of the need to accommodate two spinners. That prospect is rendered less likely by the changing nature of the wickets in Australia, some of which - Sydney in particular - do not encourage turn as much as they once did, a fact doubtless connected to Australia's inability to find a successor to Shane Warne.
England, in any case, fielded Stokes at No. 8 in the ODI series against Australia, preferring to view him as a bowler who bats, even though the player himself tends to the majority view that he is a batsman who bowls. He was sent home in disgrace from the Lions tour of Australia last winter, along with Kent's Matt Coles, for excessive late-night drinking, but he has since acquitted himself excellently and England's forgiveness is evident.
England included Chris Tremlett, too, after spending much of the summer anxiously looking for any signs that he could rediscover his form of past Ashes series and enable them to select a trio of physically threatening specimens in Tremlett, Rankin and Steven Finn. Tremlett has been selected on faith not form. Graham Onions, a perennial success on spicier county pitches, misses out, leaving England with no bowler close to what James Anderson provides although Miller did point out that Onions would be playing cricket in South Africa if he was required.
There is reasonable news on Tim Bresnan. He is increasingly confident of recovering from a stress fracture which was intercepted before enough damage was caused to necessitate a much more prolonged lay-off. He was not named in the squad but will travel to Australia and continue his rehabilitation with England.
"He will go out with the squad and when the time is right Andy will look at whether he can stay with the squad or transfer into the Performance Programme," Miller said.
England's 3-1 success on their last tour of Australia was based on the excellence of their top four - and they succeeded without the cover of a spare opening batsman. On this occasion, they have felt unable to take that risk.
Circumstances are slightly different, as England's top order struggled against Australia this summer. Carberry offers the flexibility for Joe Root to slip back into the middle order if he struggles to make the opening job his own.
England have a strong Test record since losing the first Test to India in Ahmedabad last November, winning in India, drawing in New Zealand, overcoming New Zealand in the return series and taking the Ashes 3-0. It is the sort of record that persuades them their instincts remain sound.
That is particularly the case in their continued omission of Compton, with Carberry preferred as the back-up opener despite an inferior red-ball record and none-too-convincing appearance in the NatWest Series. England's management will not be swayed from the view that Compton's game became dangerously introverted against New Zealand - and successes for Somerset and twice against the Australian tourists have not changed that.
He has also suffered from a perception that outside his runs he gives little to the dressing room and because of his reservations about working with England's batting coach, Graham Gooch, who he feels does not understand his game. He also expressed his disappointment at his exclusion quite forcibly and this England management prefers its players verbally malleable.
The Performance Squad provides extra back-up, although is not a shadow Test team. That group of players will arrive in Brisbane just before the first Test before moving to Perth and returning home shortly before England arrive for the third Test.
The ECB has had to delay one announcement. Ambitions were for new players' terms and conditions, to extend to the end of the current broadcast deal in 2017, would be announced today but wrangles over a substantial rise in salaries from a current base level of around £250,000 and the freedom to play for a longer period in IPL continue and neither were the players awarded new contracts confirmed. The current deals expire on September 30.
Negotiations were put on hold so as not to undermine England's Ashes challenge this summer. The aim is now to complete talks before England fly to Australia on October 23 and an announcement may be made before the end of the week. If not, there will be fears of further disruption.
England squad: Alastair Cook (Essex, capt), Matt Prior (Sussex, vice-captain), James Anderson (Lancashire), Jonny Bairstow, Gary Ballance (both Yorkshire), Ian Bell (Warwickshire), Stuart Broad (Nottinghamshire), Michael Carberry (Hampshire), Steven Finn (Middlesex), Monty Panesar (Essex), Kevin Pietersen (Surrey), Boyd Rankin (Warwickshire), Joe Root (Yorkshire), Ben Stokes (Durham), Graeme Swann (Nottinghamshire), Chris Tremlett (Surrey), Jonathan Trott (Warwickshire)
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