The ECB today announced a 26 man England Performance Squad for the 2008 Summer season. Along with the centrally contracted players and many of the usual suspects, the uncapped trio of Michael Carberry, James Tredwell and most excitingly Adil Rashid, were included in the 'EPS'. Doubtless much will be made of Rashid's inclusion; the young spinner has impressed greatly whether it be with Yorkshire or on the recent England Lions tour to India, while England have been searching for leg-spinning magic for as long as can be remembered.
Although it is clearly important to allow these young and clearly talented players to come under Peter Moores' tutelage, one wonders whether or not there are any gaps in the England side that need to be filled. Despite the absence of Harmison and Hoggard in Napier, the England team is beginning to be as settled as it has been post the much celebrated 2005 Ashes triumph, so here is an opportunity to look more closely at the players who will make up the England team in the 2008 Summer.
Alistair Cook's unflappable temperament at the top of the order has meant that Marcus Trescothick has not been too sorely missed, while Michael Vaughan and Andrew Strauss, despite recent blips complete a top three of real International pedigree. This author would suggest that perhaps there is only room for two of the aforementioned batsmen at the top of the order, and that Ian Bell as opposed to Vaughan or Strauss would be a better prospect at number three. Nonetheless it would be no surprise to see Bell taking up a slot in the middle order sandwiched between Kevin Pietersen and Paul Collingwood, both of whom are automatic selections in both forms of the game. Tim Ambrose will hopefully be given a chance to prove himself throughout the summer, and first impressions would suggest that he has a real chance to establish himself as a permanent fixture in the Test team.
Considering the hype surrounding Andrew Flintoff's return to domestic cricket, it would seem that his international comeback is imminent, though it would be interesting to see him in a slightly different role than he once filled; as a bowler with the ability to change the game from number 8, although it could be argued that this is a waste of the supreme all-rounder's undoubted talents.
That leaves the bowlers, and while Harmison and Hoggard will have something to prove in the opening county exchanges, they will be on the edge of Test match selection throughout the summer. Stuart Broad impressed sufficiently over the winter to suggest that he has a real future and it would be a tough break if he were to make way for either Harmison or Hoggard.
Ryan Sidebottom was the star of the New Zealand tour and with his flowing locks and dangerous swing back into the right handers, Michael Vaughan will be calling on him time and again throughout a busy summer. James Anderson's ability to extract regular and sometimes late swing has meant that the selectors have persisted with him for long periods of time and his will be a name on the selectors' lips throughout the summer. Monty Panesar, after bursting onto the International scene, had a largely disappointing winter, and it would be an interesting move if the selector were to plump for the winter's drinks carrier Graeme Swann, James Tredwell or even Rashid, especially as any of these three would offer substantially more with the bat and in the field.
Owais Shah and Ravi Bopara lie on the cusp of selection, but it is difficult to imagine either getting a run in the Test side without injuries to some of the more established players. Thus, even though a 26 man EPS has been named, England's side is reasonably well settled, and the competition for places is very healthy, particularly amongst the seam bowlers.
England will hope to be more dominant and assertive against New Zealand this time around, although South Africa will pose a far more serious challenge. The Proteas' pace attack is one to be feared, with Dale Steyn becoming more dangerous by the series, Makyha Ntini still a force to be reckoned with and Morne Morkel consistently bowling close to 90mph. Moreover South Africa's batting line up has been firing lately with Neil McKenzie enjoying a renaissance and Hashim Amla finally reproducing his domestic form on the International arena Graeme Smith and Jaques Kallis are seriously class acts and Mark Boucher and AB de Villiers will make consistent contributions in the middle order. England will need to be at their best if they are to compete and consistently so. The first step towards consistent performances is sending out an unchanged side, consistently, enabling the team to bond and develop an understanding as per the 2005 Ashes.
On a finishing note it is interesting to observe two notable omissions from the EPS, Simon Jones has become somewhat of a forgotten man during his recovery from injury, but this author would suggest that he can be a bowler of international class again, while the other man to miss out is the one and only Mr Mark Ramprakash, who, rather inevitably opened his 2008 Championship account with a patient century.