Wednesday, 29 April 2009

The Ashes plan or horses for courses?

To anyone following the build-up to today's England team selection for the first of the two upcoming Tests against the West Indies, that selection will have come as a surprise - neither Ian Bell, nor Michael Vaughan (around whom speculation has centred) made the 12-man squad, nor even Owais Shah, with Ravi Bopara preferred for the No. 3 berth, whilst Steve Harmison was passed over in favour of Durham teammate, Graham Onions, and Yorkshire's Tim Bresnan.

What is unclear about the selection, however, is how far it signals England's Ashes intentions. A top 7 of Strauss, Cook, Bopara, Pietersen, Collingwood, Prior and Broad may look adequate against the inexperienced West Indies attack, but it is surely a little lightweight to face the Australians. At No.8, Broad was a luxury, but, at No.7, he will shoulder run-scoring responsibility; Bopara scored one century against West Indies at No.6 (after being dropped on 4), but coming in first down against a top bowling attack on pitches with some life (Lord's aside) is quite a different matter. Putting two players in 'make or break' situations inevitably pressurises the rest of the batting line-up.

The 5-bowler selection may be a reflection of the difficulty of forcing a result at Lord's (the last 6 Tests there have been drawn), rather than a statement for the summer, although it's worth remembering that the team for the final Windies Test of the winter had the same balance. If this balance works well in the first Tests, it could well be kept for the summer, especially if Flintoff returns at No.7.

Whatever the side's balance, players I'd regard, at this stage, as inked-in Ashes certainties are Strauss(c.), Cook (reluctantly), Pietersen, Collingwood, Prior (with reservations), Broad and Anderson. With Swann or Panesar as the main spinner, this leaves 3 further places up for grabs: 2 batting and 1 bowling if England are being conservative, 2 bowling and 1 batting if caution is thrown to the wind, and one of each if Flintoff is fit.

The brusque message sent to Bell and Harmison, the most notable 'snubees', is that they are going to have to make themselves impossible to leave out between now and July, rather than simply returning to 'their' spots in the team. Bell, in particular, repeatedly puts being dropped down to a 3-month loss of form, rather than a failure, over a longer period, to do justice to his talent by scoring match-dictating centuries under pressure.

In the race for Ashes places, it's all to play for, which is just as it should be. Since Andy Flower doesn't have the luxury of a settled team, the best he can do is to stimulate competition for places and hope that the results will follow. It'll be interesting to see which players react best.

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