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England's selection policy for this one-day series has split opinion - and defeat at Old Trafford suggested they will struggle to match Australia - with the role of Ben Stokes as a third seamer a key issue
September 10, 2013
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Matches: England v Australia at Birmingham
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In 18 months, when the World Cup has been won or lost, it seems fairly safe to assume few will remember the result of this NatWest Series.
As a consequence of the expansion of the international calendar, several sides have identified a need to prioritise. The World Cup has become the goal at the end of each four-year cycle in ODI cricket and almost everything that leads to it is little more than a stepping stone.
Even encounters between these two old rivals. Partially in an attempt to exploit the market for such games, England and Australia have played ODI cricket against one another every year since 2001 with the exception of 2008. Sometimes those meetings have come in global events; usually they have not. It is hard to keep something so commonplace special.
England, certainly, see it that way. By resting five senior players and granting opportunities to several new faces, they have demonstrated that this series has been relegated to the category of 'development opportunity.'
An Australian camp looking to shore-up reputations and build some confidence before heading home may interpret it differently. But make no mistake: it is, as England found after winning the CB Series in early 2007 after their drubbing in the Ashes, little consolation.
England's policy may see them concede a few battles. It will smart to lose any games - as it should - but if it helps them win the war, they will feel the pain was worthwhile.
England's aim is to identify the two or three players who will help them improve from Champions Trophy runners-up to winners of the World Cup. It may prove, in the case of injury or retirements, that their 2013 Champions Trophy squad requires more reinforcement but, for now, England are looking for at least one allrounder, an effective third seamer and a big-hitting batsman. If they turn out to be one person, all well and good.
With that in mind, the selection of their squad is not entirely logical. Quite apart from including red ball performers - the likes of Chris Jordan - for a white ball format, they have also included a 32-year-old opener, Michael Carberry, who has little chance of dislodging any of England's top-order regulars.
England have four men - at least - who are happy in the top three. Carberry is a fine player who is unlucky to have waited so long for such an opportunity, but it is unrealistic to expect him to dislodge Alastair Cook, Ian Bell, Kevin Pietersen or Jonathan Trott from the top four. And Joe Root is their natural successor.
Pietersen missed the Champions Trophy and now he is back at the top of the order it may prove that his return creates a tussle for places among Bell, Trott and Root. With Eoin Morgan, Cook and Ravi Bopara all likely to feature in a first-choice top six, there could well be a high-profile omission over the coming months.
Ashley Giles' view
But it was not the selection of the squad as much as the selection of the team that was controversial at Old Trafford. By picking a team with Ben Stokes batting at No. 8 and performing the role of third seamer, England left themselves light on bowling options and subsequently conceded 315. Stokes remains, at present, a batting allrounder, and is currently being asked to fulfil a different role in international cricket to the one with which he is familiar in domestic cricket.
However Ashley Giles, England's limited-overs coach, justified the decision and the balance of the side. Admitting that the two Ashes series took priority, he reiterated the desire to use this series to learn more about their most promising players.
"Obviously we want to win the series," Giles said. "We always get upset when we lose. But there are other successes to be had. With an inexperienced bowling attack and someone like Carberry at the top of the order, we've had an opportunity to look at some young players.
"In our strategic objectives right now we've got back to back Ashes. We've got to get through these two Ashes series, we want to win both series, and of course once we get into the new year we move that focus more towards the World Cup. So, at the moment, while it's always frustrating to any coach that you can't have your best side in the middle the reasoning's absolutely spot on. We've got to look after our best players while looking at the next generation coming through."
"If we came through the series and they had some success and they have moved on and improved, it gives us a much greater pools of players to look at with the 2015 World Cup in mind. Experience against this Australia side is hugely valuable for them and for us looking at players.
"A great example would be Ben Stokes, who is playing in our side as a third seamer. His bowling has improved a huge amount over the past 12 months and his one-day record is improving as well. He has the potential to be a genuine all-rounder.
"Him playing in that role - and I think he has already improved game on game - should be a great advantage to us and him. I'm not sure batting at eight and bowling is a role he will play down the line, but the experience of what he is doing right now is going to be hugely valuable.
"Otherwise the balance is what we played in the Champions Trophy when we were very successful. Against New Zealand we played five specialist bowlers and it didn't really work. That's when we brought Ravi back into the side since when he has had a fantastic run in the team so I don't believe we are just fiddling overs.
"But when you have inexperience you are going to have to suffer some pain to get some gain and that's a little bit of what we are looking at. Saying that there is no reason why this team can't win these games of cricket.
There have been suggestions from the likes of former England captain Michael Vaughan that, such is the weakened state of this England team, the ECB should offer refunds to those who have bought tickets for these ODIs. But the argument for rest and rotation is overwhelming and, in the not too distant future, it may well be that it is the likes of Stokes and Jamie Overton that most excite spectators. This series is providing a peak into England's ODI future.
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfoFeeds: George Dobell
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