England’s World Cup squad contained only one half-surprise: the selection of Ravi Bopara ahead of Mal Loye. Bopara has only played one game, but he is a bubbly character, a wristy batsman of considerable promise, a fine fielder and a good enough seamer to have dismissed Mike Hussey on debut. It is not his selection that frustrates me; that is the decision to stick with Andrew Strauss.
Strauss’s form this winter could hardly have been worse. In 20 international innings down under, he has not once passed 55. That statistic alone is surely reason enough to drop him. Add in his patent lack of coherent thinking that has characterised his batting all tour, and, equally significantly, the similarities in style with so many other players in the squad, and his selection appears to be another example of excess loyalty.
In contrast, Loye’s attitude is fearless: whoever is bowling, his aim is to attack. It is true that he has only scored his runs at an average of 20 for England; but he has consistently attacked the bowling in a manner that no other English opener, save for Marcus Trescothick, is capable of doing.
With his slog-sweep – which has already worked well, and would surely be very successful on the short Caribbean outfields against sides generally bereft of much pace – and the hard-hit drives that were a feature of his 45 in the second CB Series final, he provides welcome unpredictability and a genuinely positive option during the Powerplay overs. And, though he has not truly come off to date, he has kick-started several innings, building a platform for the more subtle players in the side. Loye is an example of the fact that, as Gideon Haigh puts it, “All runs are equal but some are more equal than others”.
Strauss, in contrast, seems fundamentally shaken by a chastening tour. His perceived ability to place anywhere in the top five may have been decisive in his selection. However, if Kevin Pietersen were to be injured, England’s top four would consist of Joyce, Vaughan, Bell and Strauss – what price that line-up chasing down 300? Chasing such a daunting target, as England will surely have to do on at least one occasion in the World Cup, would not require steady top-order accumulation but ruthless exploitation of the Powerplay overs – something the idiosyncratic Loye has spent recent years mastering the art of.
As well as being one of England’s three genuinely destructive ODI batsmen, alongside Pietersen and Andrew Flintoff, Loye could also conceivably be a like-for-like replacement for Pietersen. Playing for Auckland prior to being called up by England, the Lancastrian scored a match-winning 90 off only 79 balls – batting at number four.
Ultimately, as much as anything else, Loye is a victim of England’s haphazard one-day selection. Had he been selected earlier – as his performances for Lancashire have demanded – and England had not wasted time for so long utilising Matt Prior and Vikram Solanki as openers, we would now be sure of whether he was able to transform his domestic success into the international arena. Instead, the mad situation materialised whereby his World Cup selection – or lack of it – probably boiled down to the 20 extra runs he didn’t score in the second final.
Loye appeared to have learned from his earlier mistakes – principally his rash swipes outside off-stump – in compiling his last innings. Alas, he will now have to dwell on his loss of concentration, and subsequent run-out, on Sunday, and an egregious lbw decision two days earlier. But, given England’s – and especially Michael Vaughan’s – injury history, Loye would be well advised to keep his mobile phone handy.