Tuesday, 31 July 2007

Should England make changes for the Oval?

England are in an unusual position: only once since 1996 have they gone into the final Test of the summer needing to win to square the series. That was in 2003, when they made three changes for the last Test at South Africa, and inevitably there have been calls for new blood after today's defeat by India. So what are the main areas of consideration ahead of next week's Oval Test?

Opening batsmen

Until the tour to Australia last winter, Andrew Strauss had a phenomenal record of 10 hundreds in just 31 Tests, averaging 46; in his last 11 Tests, he has failed to score a century while averaging just 28. He may have ground out half-centuries in his last three Tests, but there are still worries about his static feet - and he was dismissed through an aberrant swipe at Trent Bridge, perhaps betraying his mental state. His opening partner Alastair Cook has been dismissed LBW four times this series, playing across the line on each occasion, but has shown such promise that his place is not under any threat.

If England decide to dispense with Strauss, which remains unlikely, they have two options; they can either pick a specialist opener, or move Michael Vaughan up to open (a job he has done just once since the West Indies tour of 2003-04) and rejig the batting order. If they opt for the former, the most likely candidate is Kent's Joe Denly, who, at 21, already averages 54 in first-class cricket. He has played two innings of particular note this campaign: an outstanding 115 not out (out of only 199) against a Hampshire side featuring Shane Warne, Stuart Clark and Chris Tremlett; and an exhilarating, 90-ball 83 against the Indians for England Lions.

Middle order batsmen

With some impressive performances since his recall against Pakistan last year, Ian Bell looked to be establishing himself as one of England's untouchables. However he has failed four times this series, while England's selectors may also note that he averages just 19 after five Tests against India, and murmurings about his inability to perform under pressure remain. The words that dare not speak their name - flat-track bully - are becoming increasingly voluble - Paul Collingwood's tenacious 63 in the last Test, meanwhile, will ensure he remains in the side for the Oval.

Owais Shah played in the first Test of the summer and, especially after his fine one-day showings, is probably the next cab on the middle-order rank. Memories of his superb 88 on Test debut in Mumbai remain; and, at 28, Shah's time should be now. Of the other candidates, Ravi Bopara is averaging 65 in the championship, and his wristy batting and steely temperament caught the eye in the World Cup. It may seem fanciful but, with this being a must-win Test that exists in isolation, it would be wrong to discount the technically proficient Mark Ramprakash, who is once more leading the first-class averages and, nearing 38, is a more mellow character than during his Test career.


Matt Prior is sure to keep his place for the final Test but, considering his decidedly iffy wicket-keeping and the fact his runs have only come against West Indies - whose bowling attack would be amongst the worst in Division Two - his long-term position is by no means secure. As shown by his selection for England Lions, Tim Ambrose, a markedly better keeper than Prior and outstanding with the bat this season, leads the chasing pack, although he has not reached fifty in his past five first-class knocks. There are a multitude of other potential candidates, led by the unlucky James Foster, who, at 27, should be entering his prime.

Pace bowling

Chris Tremlett, who has taken 10 wickets in two Tests, is surely assured of a place. Ryan Sidebottom has bowled well in both matches against India; and Jimmy Anderson was excellent at Lord's, but disappointingly wayward at Trent Bridge. However, with Monty Panesar completing the bowling quartet, the England selectors will no doubt be aware of the need to extract more runs from the tail.

This could aid the case of Stuart Broad, omitted at the last for the first Test. He has scored half-centuries in consecutive seasons against the tourists to give evidence he could be an England No8, while he also claimed five wickets against India for England Lions. Though almost as tall as Tremlett, he generates less bounce, but has good pace, gets movement off the seam, offers aggression and has a temperament well suited to the international game. The recovery of Matthew Hoggard is still in its infancy - he is not yet back at Yorkshire - and it would smack of desperation were he to be selected, especially as he averages 40 at the Oval. The same, of course, could be said of a recall for Andy Caddick, although he has 56 first-class wickets this season and an excellent record at the Oval.


Richard Lake said...

I think that the eleven that played at Trent Bridge will be the same eleven that play at the Oval. England have become successul over the past few years by not panicking in their selections and playing with a settled team. This has brought an understanding of everyone's roles.

It has also enabled players like Michael Vaughan or Andrew Flintoff to return to fitness in the knowledge that they will return to the team, with the younger players knowing that their role is initially as a stop gap, but also to provide competition.

The current top 6 England batsmen are the best available at Test level. All have scored big runs this season and while the pressure is on Bell or Collingwood as Flintoff returns to fitness, there is no-one outside the current team making an unanswerable case.

A further point is that England comprehensively outplayed India at Lords. India had the better of conditions and a good run of luck in this match (while thoroughly deserving the win). They also, for the first time in years, look like they have a fast bowler who is Test class in Zaheer Khan.

To make changes now would be to send out an aura of panic that isn't required. The current players should be given the chance to put right what went wrong at Trent Bridge

Tim said...

I agree we'll probably see an unchanged side but, personally, I would bring in Broad (better with the bat and more suited to the Oval, perhaps) in for Anderson and, with reluctance, Shah for Bell.