Gideon Haigh is a cricket historian and writer
Sometimes you arrive at a cricket ground wondering if the day’s play will offer anything worth writing about; other days you are greeted by decision like the omission of Monty Panesar from England’s XI and there’s scarcely need to see a ball. Of course, you could see it coming a mile off, Duncan Fletcher’s three weeks of purse-mouthed pragmatism having softened watchers up. Yet it was somehow still a shock to be handed the England team sheet today: not quite a suicide note to rank with the 1983 Labour manifesto, but a failure of nerve and imagination.
Against Australia, thirty-three-year-old Giles averages 15 with the bat and 52 with the ball. He is an honest cricketer who has never disgraced himself, but he has not played a first-class game this year. Yet he has walked back into the England team at the expense of the world’s best orthodox finger spinner, nine years his junior, chiefly on the basis of his ancillary capabilities with the bat and in the field. It’s like a restaurant choosing a short-order cook over a chef de cuisine on the grounds he makes a better cup of tea. If a modest lengthening of the batting were sought, Sajid Mahmood would arguably have been the better bet – into the bargain, he would have been more adept than Anderson with the old ball. Any ball, if today was much to go by.
There’s no ignoring that Australia has an incontestable edge in its order from number seven onwards: Gilchrist, Warne and Lee are probably the best batting trio in their respective roles in the world. This edge, though, is so little narrowed by Giles’s selection that the gesture is scarcely worth making, and hardly at all at the cost of a bowler in Panesar who, as Flintoff noted yesterday, ‘gets good batsmen out’. This, I suspect, was the selection of a team for its appearance on paper rather than its efficacy in a match. In Ray Illingworth, England were said to have a ‘one-man committee’; Fletcher might be auditioning for the role of ‘one-man bureaucracy’.
After pondering Panesar, of course, it was on with the game, Steve Harmison’s first ball wide probably being worth a thousand words or two as well. The toss has conferred on Australia a considerable advantage – all the more reason to lament that England yielded them another at the selection table.