Wednesday, 10 May 2006

Is that the best you've got?

It is a sporting truism that it is the reserves that really define a side’s strength. With a depleted batting line-up, England passed with flying colours in India. And now, with Steve Harmison and Simon Jones, who both missed the last test in India, joined by automatic first reserve James Anderson on the sidelines, England are about to find out how good their bowling reserves are.

All the signs point to England fielding a bowling line-up of Matthew Hoggard, Andrew Flintoff, Liam Plunkett and either Sajod Mahmood or Jon Lewis for the first test against Sri Lanka. If the first two names are now established as England two most consistent bowlers (given Harmison’s post-2004 fall from grace and Jones’s constant injuries), then the latter three are a cause for desperate concern.

It is not exaggerating to suggest Mahmood is England’s eighth-choice seamer, with not only Hoggard, Harmison, Jones and Flintoff rated more highly, but also Anderson, Plunkett and quite possibly Chris Tremlett too. In case you are wondering why Tremlett is not in contention, you need not: he is currently injured with an ankle problem.

Yet what is so intriguing about England’s selection is that there is no doubt this is a side picked with the Ashes in mind. Jon Lewis is currently the most in-form seamer in the country, and his traditional ‘English-style’ swing may well cause Sri Lanka real problems in the ‘A’ game this week. But, his performances against Australia in the ODIs last year, combined with his age – 30 - make selection for the winter tour an impossibility.

As recently as 2003, England opted for a bowler similar in style to Lewis, in Surrey’s Martin Bicknell. Bicknell, 34 when selected, proved decisive as England gloriously leveled the series against South Africa at The Oval. So, what seems clear is the England selectors do not regard this series with the same degree of respect as against South Africa. After all, it’s Sri Lanka in May, so any old combination will do. Why not give youth a chance?

Yet, although two of the mainstays of Sri Lanka’s batting – Sanath Jayasuriya and Marvan Attapatu – are both out for reasons of retirement and recuperation, England’s task is not an easy one, given the paucity of their fast-bowling resources. The nightmare scenario for England, and certainly a conceivable one, is that Sri Lanka’s innings turn into a case of ‘Flintoff & Hoggard v Sri Lanka.’

However, for the optimists amongst you all, this series represents a great chance for Plunkett and Mahmood to vie for, possibly, a place on the Ashes tour.

Plunkett’s winter offerings certainly brought hope for the future, even if his bowling was at times a little wayward. The 21-year-old has clearly been identified by Duncan Fletcher as something special, and provides awkward pace and bounce, allied to a seemingly mature temperament. And, though he has played two tests, he remains a largely unknown quantity, which will make it all the more fascinating to see how he responds to the challenge of being third, rather than fourth, seamer.

The selection of Sajid Mahmood is so typical of Duncan Fletcher, in that he is someone who, statistically speaking, would never find himself into an England side. He is decidedly pacy, favours a full length and is also tall; equally, he is something of a loose cannon who went for 6.4 an over in the ODIs against India and was trusted with only six county championship games for Lancashire last season, in which he took a mere 11 wickets. Mahmood has long been touted as a future star – by Dennis Lillee amongst others – but, at 24, he is yet to even take 100 first-class wickets. If he is to become the player so many expect him too, now would be a good time to start.

The man who would surely be making his test debut, were it not for his ankle injury is Chris Tremlett. If the other two men could be classed as ‘tall’, Tremlett is close to ‘giant’ status, towering over his team-mates at 6ft 7in. Like Mahmood, he is 24, though his track-record sets him apart, Tremlett having taken 98 more wickets at an average of 26 as opposed to 31.

Given the bounce he generates, as well as his pace and penchant for explosive spells – such as taking a hat-trick to inspire Hampshire to a brilliant 14-run victory over Notts in the championship last year – Tremlett has every chance of going to Australia, where the fast-paced tracks would appear to be so much to his liking. But his injury-record is almost reminiscent of Simon Jones’s.

Another area Plunkett, Mahmood and Tremlett have in common – and this is surely no coincidence – is their competence with a bat in hand. All could already be considered better practitioners of the art of the art of batsmanship than Steve Harmison, Simon Jones, and Matthew Hoggard, for whom the skill should be named the art of blockmanship. Plunkett has already proved he has some batting aptitude at international level, striking 56 against Pakistan in a ODI, though his batting in India suggested such a knock may prove the exception. Tremlett, again, has the best average, although Mahmood has come within six runs of a century. If any were able to take their batting onto the next level, which may prove beyond them all, and elevate themselves to the status of potential test number 8s, their path into the side would certainly be eased.

All of which leaves James Anderson’s future in the melting pot. His batting has improved too, but Hoggard land is probably the best he can hope for with a bat in his hand, though his offside driving is occasionally very sweet. Despite performing superbly on his test return in India, displaying a new-found maturity and swinging the ball viciously at 85mph, Anderson’s lack of height compared to the others may ultimately count against him. But what is surprising is that Mahmood and Tremlett are still largely talked of as ‘prospects’, while the rejuvenated Anderson is still just 23.

There are others lurching in the selectors’ thoughts too, perhaps none more so than Stuart Broad, still 19, himself with aspirations of being a bowling all-rounder. Yet the four men in contention for the status of ‘first reserve’ know at least one of them is virtually guaranteed to play a significant part in the 2006/07 Ashes series: the odds against the ‘fab four’ each surviving the entire series free of injuries or collapses in form must be extremely high.

The Ashes will certainly dominate the selectors’ thoughts, though there is the small matter of revenge with Pakistan – and a meeting with Sri Lanka seemingly so disregarded it may as well be Bangladesh – before then, with England certain of not receiving anything like a gentle ride pre-Ashes.

The selectors’ have also pledged a policy of ‘rotation’ to keep players on their toes and prevent the burn out endured by Marcus Trescothick. This will surely be especially noticeable when it comes to the fast-bowlers. All four have their merits, though Plunkett and especially Mahmood should perhaps wait until 2007 for contention, at least in tests, when everyone is fit. Which is a pretty big ‘if.’ In the meantime, Anderson would seem the best candidate on purely bowling credentials, but it may not prove enough if Tremlett, seemingly the most-suited to Australian conditions, rediscovers form and fitness. England’s fast-bowling reserve cupboard is not exactly bear, but it is thin on experience and still has much maturing to do.