Tuesday, 14 November 2006

Who will replace Stresscothick?

My worst fears regarding Marcus Trescothick have been realised. His play all summer-long had been unconvincing; and, it touched the confines of lunacy to suggest he would be fully recovered for an Ashes tour despite not being able to participate in the ICC Champions Trophy a month earlier. So it now seems increasingly likely that Trescothick’s final international appearance will be a first-ball dismissal against Pakistan in a one-dayer. He has had a fine career that included 26 international hundreds – although just a solitary one, in a ODI at Headingly last summer, against the best team in the world.

But, although his excellence is beyond doubt, he seldom thrived against Australia, who frequently exposed his notorious lack of footwork. Though the loss of his experience is a blow, it allows Alistair Cook to move up to his natural position as opener; Paul Collingwood is a gutsy cricketer who should do ok at number five. Trescothick’s withdrawal then, does not weaken England greatly.

Clearly, a replacement is imperative, and will be announced within the next day or so. Robert Key appears to be a front-runner. He is a man who, it seems to be universally acknowledged, showed character and earned the respect of the Aussies in 2002/03 – all this while averaging just 18. Key is a good batsman, but ultimately too prone to careless dismissals; and he only averaged in the mid-30s for Kent last season. If he is selected, it will add to the feelings of some that Andrew Flintoff is rather keen to include his mates in the side.

Owais Shah averaged little better than Key last season. But his class as a batsman is beyond doubt; the ease with which he took to Test cricket in India last winter – scoring 88 and 38 and having the nerve to charge Harbhajan Singh on numerous occasions - certainly merits another opportunity. His county teammate Ed Joyce also has a case for selection, though he has not yet shown he can thrive at international level.

Trescothick’s absence means Andrew Strauss is now the side’s most experienced batsman. The chances of a Vaughan welcome sometime this series have increased, but he will palpably not be ready to play until the 4th Test.

The amiable Mark Butcher has a very good chance of selection; he has scored three Test hundreds against Australia, two of them down under. His form for Surrey was most encouraging last season, while he was only dropped from the England set-up due to injury. Indeed, in his second incarnation as a Test cricketer, from 2001, Butcher’s grit and sweet offside play resulted in an average of 41.

But, if you are going to pick someone on their performances in the last domestic season, it is hard to look beyond Mark Ramprakash; persuading him to leave Strictly Come Dancing for an Ashes tour should not prove too problematic. People will point to his Test record and age as evidence of why he shouldn’t go. But, at this stage of his career, he really would have nothing to lose; equally, this most classical of batsmen remains an impressive fielder (certainly superior to Messrs Shah and Key.)

Ramprakash’s technique has already earned him success against Australia, at home and away – he averages 42 in 12 Tests against them. Having averaged in excess of 100 for Surrey last season, thanks to a series of gargantuan hundreds and his unrelenting professionalism, Ramprakash is in the form of his life, while his character, once a problem, has mellowed considerably. He could slot in seamlessly to number three, filling the void of a classy, attractive and experienced batsman who has excelled in Australia before. Whether Duncan Fletcher is prepared to sanction such a controversial selection, however, remains to be seen.

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