Monday, 21 July 2008

Time for Jones and Harmison?

As many had feared they would be in the first Test, England were comprehensively outplayed here. Once again, England avoided picking their strongest side. For those frustrated with the innate caution in their recent selection, the decision to select Darren Pattinson, out of nowhere, was utterly incongruous.

Pattinson did certainly not disgrace himself, and outbowled Stuart Broad. However, this will probably prove to be his sole Test, for he lacks pace, does too little with the ball and, while accurate, is not metronomic. England would have been better off selecting the in-form Simon Jones or Steve Harmison, both of whom have proved they possess the ability to get out the best batsmen, whilst Chris Tremlett, who performed so admirably against India last summer, must be bewildered as to why England seem so willing to pick him in squads, but so reluctant to pick him in the starting XI.

So the pressing question is: how can England take 20 South African wickets?
Andrew Flintoff should certainly help, and his parsimony with the ball allied to a good second- innings knock, were a reasonably satisfactory return. But, while he is probably amongst England's best four bowlers, the problem of where he should bat persists. Michael Vaughan says seven, with good reason: but Tim Ambrose is emphatically not a Test number six. The problem is compounded by Stuart Broad - while he soon could be, his bowling average after eight Tests is 49. For all his all-round promise, can England afford a man whose bowling is neither overly threatening nor consistently economical?

So the call must go out to Messrs Jones and Harmison. Jones has been back to near his best this campaign: his combination of speed and prodigious reverse swing cannot be ignored now he has gone a considerable way to allaying those inevitable fitness doubts. With Harmison, the problem has always perceived to be mental rather than physical. However, this may just be a case of journalistic over-simplification.

The disappointments of Harmison's performances over the last four years for England, with the odd exception, are well-known. Yet his failures have so often been characterised by a lack of preparation time - think of the South Africa tour in 2004/05; the '06/07 Ashes tour; and even his last Test match in New Zealand. He is a rhythmical bowler, and he has emphatically found that this season. He is the leading wicket-taker in the Championship, with 40 wickets, and has even proved frugal in limited-overs games and Twenty20. He appears confident in himself, having bowled impressively for several months. England cannot afford to ignore his pace, bounce and hostility any longer - especially in light of Morne Morkel's impressive showings - for all the fears over his waywardness.

There is also Ryan Sidebottom, England's best bowler in the last 12 months but seemingly a little jaded. Given his performances have been less impressive of late and he had to sit out the current Test through injury, England should not recall him before he produces some impressive displays for Notts.

The issue is further clouded by the fact none of Jones, Harmison, Anderson and Sidebottom are Test number eights - and are probably not even good nines - which is a major problem given the hopelessness of Monty Panesar's batting. Panesar has been disappointing this series, but England would be loathe to ditch the one clear superiority they enjoy over South Africa.

So there is much for England's selectors to consider in the bowling department. The picture is equally grim elsewhere, with the top three all provoking question marks - Strauss has scored two Test centuries in two years, both against New Zealand; Cook has scored one century in 27 innings and there are increasing doubts over his leaden-footed technique; whilst Vaughan has struggled against Dale Steyn and seems increasingly - and worryingly - vulnerable early on. Tim Ambrose, meanwhile, should be ditched now, especially if England wish to continue with five bowlers, as they probably should. Matt Prior, with reluctance given his keeping displays when in an England shirt, should be granted an extended run at number six.

All is not yet lost for England in this series. But the problems that have been apparent for some time have now come to a head. For six days solid, England have won barely a session - and it will take something special to stem the flow.


Richard Lake said...

Some intersting points, Tim, even if I don't agree with all of them!

Firstly, the wicket-keeper, which is the way to balance the team. If we are to take 20 wickets, then we need the best keeper possible - so Read or Foster. Runs need to be a bonus rather than an expectationm but we can't affors to miss chances.

To balance the team Flintoff needs to be the number 6 batsman that he was three years ago. He played a strong innings today - it's a shame he couldn't show more faith in Stuart Broad. However, with Flintoff at 6, Broad needs to play but with the remit of bowling tight and for the man at the other end.

With Flintoff and Broad as two of the bowlers, I would stick with Anderson and Sidebottom, if fit. Anderson has been England's best bowler this series and Sidebottom the most likely option to get lateral movement.

With Sidebottom unfit, then Jones or Tremlett have to be the call. Harmison went through the same process last season. Bowled well for Durham but fell to pieces against the might of the West Indies. He is to bowling what Mark Ramprakash is to batting. An exceptional player who is just not good enough at test level.

As for the batsmen - who knows? KP played one of the strangest innings I've seen today, while the openers keep getting in to get out.

I don't see that the situation is as bleak as you make out. But we do need to work out how to bowl at the Saffers before this becomes a habit.

Tim said...

Cheers Richie.

I would say Harmy is in even better rhythm than a year ago, although I accept your point. But at his best he offers so much - I'd give him one last shot, when he's in good rhythm, high on confidence and the others aren't doing it.

Flintoff 6, Broad 7, Read 8? Not bad idea, but still looks a tad fragile for me (especially with such a weak 9-10-jack).

I don't see an atack of Flintoff Broad Anderson and Sidebottom doing the business on flat tracks. So I would like at least one of Jones and Harmison - preferably both.

Philip Oliver said...

Nice piece Tim. I reckon England need to look at performance rather than selection. Our batsmen need to learn from South Africa's - they protect their wicket whilst England gift theirs on a regular basis; our bowlers have to work very hard for reward.
As for selection, there won't be too many changes - Vaughan appeared to blame this defeat on a lack of continuity, so I expect Sidebottom's return (I really don't think he needs to prove himself for Notts) to be the only change.

Chrispy said...

If England continue with Ambrose at 6 then they will lose the series that is painfully obvious. South Africa have a man at six who has a double century to his name and who just hit 174. We have a bloke who is averaging 18.7 of late and who can't seem to find a shot other than the cut, which any decent opposition will dry up. England are not a fantastic side unfortunately and they have few altrenatives batting wise. Five bowlers = Prior. Four = Foster imho. That is the only way to achieve balance as Adil Rashid no longer seems a viable alternative to Panesar in the near future.

Vaughan (c)
Prior (wk)


Foster (wk)

Jones needs to be in a five man attack especially with Fred, whilst on current form we can't afford to have Broad in a four man attack.