Thursday, 7 December 2006

The faces that fit

Before the series the task ahead of England looked challenging, now it appears impossible. Whilst Australia have changed their side and moved forwards, England have taken a backwards step. “Stuck in the past” seems to be the best phrase when it comes to England’s selection policy. Through desperately trying to re-field the winning Ashes side of 2005 England have destroyed any hope they had of retaining the Urn.

Eighteen months is a long time in international cricket, especially if you have not played much cricket over that period of time. The simple fact of the matter is that James Anderson, Ashley Giles and most importantly, Stephen Harmison, were not ready for England’s biggest test series in two decades. Australia is also a much different arena to that of England.

Against Pakistan at home the benefits of having a batsman at number six were obvious with Ian Bell racking up three consecutive hundreds. When was the last time England had such a return from Captain Freddie? The talismanic all-rounder played quite possibly one of the worst situation shots I have ever seen on Tuesday morning. It was like watching a right handed early version of Marcus Trescothick. With no foot movement whatsoever, the Captain had a wild thrash at a ball over two feet outside his offstump.

Geraint Jones’ shot was even more infuriating, although one could understand what they were both trying to achieve as they attempted to put more distance between themselves and Australia. Whichever way the subject is approached though, the runs from below number five in this series have been noticeably lacking. When Pietersen failed on Tuesday it was inevitable that England would lose as England have not been able to rely on lower order runs from Andrew Flintoff and Jones for a long time, especially when they have been in a real bind.

Including Monty Panesar and an extra batsman would solve the problem, but this is a difficult route for England to now take as they chase the series. Meanwhile, the inevitable calls for Jones’ head are unfounded. Chris Read would not have saved England on Tuesday, nor has Jones made horrible mistakes with the gloves. We saw enough in the Champions Trophy to know that Read would not last long against the accuracy of Glenn McGrath and Stuart Clark.

Jones has the technique to succeed in Australia and performed well at Brisbane. Whole sale changes are not required as Paul Collingwood rightfully states. Whichever keeper plays we are not going to see a torrent of runs or mistakes. Matt Prior would be my selection with five bowlers based on his ability to score runs, while Steven Davies would be my future selection, along with four bowlers, to end this nonsensical tug of war between Jones, Fletcher, Read and the other selectors. However, I digress.

England fans witnessed a shambolic display in Pakistan following the last Ashes series before they performed commendably in India to rightfully earn a draw. Panesar and not Giles was of course the slow left arm spinner in that side and once again it was Matthew Hoggard and Flintoff who caused the main problems over the winter, showing their quality in all conditions.

Hoggard and Panesar were key to the England bowling attack over the summer against both Sri Lanka and Pakistan, whilst Flintoff’s absence from the bowling line up was naturally felt. However, Harmison was also amongst the wickets, most notably at Old Trafford and Sajid Mahmood had his good moments as well although he was far too inexperienced to be part of just a four man bowling attack at that time.

England’s two bowlers to have performed so far in Australia are again Hoggard and Flintoff. With Harmison out of form and Panesar out of the side the two next most likely wicket taking threats have not been at the party. Anderson and Giles have done little to justify their selection twice on the spin now.

With England now trailing 2-0 and seemingly out of this contest they can hardly go in to the next test with just four front line bowlers, a ploy I recommended at the start of the series. Or can they? If a side has four quality bowlers, all of whom are consistent performers, then four bowlers is quite enough, as Australia have once again proven.

With Shane Warne wheeling away for 85 overs of the 240 overs that Australia bowled, the three fast bowlers were able to rotate at the other end, ensuring that England were always under pressure from fresh bowling, not allowing England to score rapidly as in the last Ashes series. Monty Panesar could quite comfortably fulfil this Warne roll, bowling offensively, or defensively if required.

Whether England have the third seamer of consistant quality is doubtful however. Surely one of Sajid Mahmood or Liam Plunkett will play in England’s next tour games and one may well play in a five man attack in later in the series. Counting for them is the fact that they can both bat a bit! Neither currently has the consistent ability to form a key cog in a four man attack though.

Harmison could be the third cog, however he went wicketless in Adelaide of course and his selection must come into question especially with Perth considered now to be similar to Adelaide with its slow low pitch. England don’t appear to have a good enough third seamer to go with a four man attack and they will unlikely call up either of Stuart Broad or Chris Tremlett who could fulfil the role in the future.

Maybe Giles will get a reprieve in Perth, with Panesar the only change, coming in for an ineffectual Anderson, but the question England have to ask is does Panesar’s inclusion not make Giles redundant especially when Kevin Pietersen turns the ball further than the veteran Warwickshire man and offers variation with his offspin? Either an extra batsman or an extra seamer could then play, the current situation would seam to dictate that it be a seamer, most probably Mahmood.

So we arrive back at the team that was argued should play at Adelaide, with a five man bowling attack consisting of Hoggard, Flintoff, Harmison, Mahmood and Panesar. England must now take 20 wickets. As commented throughout these blogs, Panesar and Mahmood offer the bigger threats to Australia compared to Giles and Anderson. Compared to Giles, Panesar has a better bowling average, strike rate and economy. The selection issue here is surely the equivalent of a non-brainer, well, for all but the England Coach it seems.

Duncan Fletcher has undoubtedly been brilliant for English cricket, well Test match cricket at least. He does however have “his” players, the faces that fit, as John Emburey would have it. It has created a tight knit and resilient cricketing unit, but has also shut the door on many promising players. This is a major weakness of the Fletcher regime, especially now.

The “these players got us in to this and they can get us out of it” line has been heard too many times from the England camp, no more so than in the one day arena, but that is for another day. It should be obvious now to Fletcher that these players got us into this mess and are therefore not good enough to get us out of it. One can only hope that the traditional line is not on the England Coach’s lips come the 14th December.


Tim Wigmore said...

Good piece. I agree it would be futile to select giles alongside Panesar, as they are both left-arm spinners and Giles has offered very little threat to date.

The way I see it, England should replace Anderson with Giles and, at number eight, pick either a strike bowler - Sajid Mahmood - or look to pressure Australia through sheer weight of runs, and pick Ed Joyce.

Nick Gammons said...

I agree that England don't need to make radical changes, just a couple to the bowling line-up. Bringing in Read for Jones would do little, as the Notts keeper is poor against good bowling.

It is Panesar who is the key and whose omission from the team has cost England so dear. It showed a negative mid-set in the England camp, which the Australians sensed and pounced upon. Panesar might not have prevented England's losses, but he would have made Australia struggle much more for their runs, which have flowed too easily.

Mahmood over Anderson would have been a marginal call for the First Test, though I would have favoured him for his superior batting. Now it is an obvious selection as England must win at Perth.