Monday, 14 July 2008

With Flintoff and Ambrose at six and seven, Bell can afford no let up

For all the frustration of the past two days, the first Test turned out better than many pundits had anticipated for England. South Africa began as the most hyped-up side to land on these shores since the 2005 Aussies, but patently failed to live up to their own billing.

Their bowling attack lacked any penetration, with the admirable Morne Morkel the sole exception. If the first Test was anything to go by, they have only half an attack: Paul Harris did not look Test class; and Makhaya Ntini could only muster a pitiful imitation of his brilliant showing at the same ground five years ago, one that was almost painful to watch. And with the bat, only Ashwell Prince displayed the required application and skill in the first innings, although England will be worried indeed that four of their top five have already made centuries in this series. And the exception? Jacques Kallis, Wisden Leading Cricketer in the World for 2007.

The resilience shown by South Africa's batting is compounded by England enduring three solid days in the field, especially given the modern norm of back-to-back Tests. Indeed, Graeme Smith may have had half a mind to bat on rather than accept the draw, extending England's misery further.

It is excellent news that Andrew Flintoff will be recalled for the Second Test: his return should reinvigorate the side, preventing South African momentum developing after their admirable efforts to salvage a draw. One would expect him to come in for the struggling Paul Collingwood at six, although the selectors originally planned to play him at seven, with Tim Ambrose at eight, before injury scuppered his hopes of a recall in the first Test of the summer. Flintoff has not played a Test match for 18 months, and, whatever his run and wicket tallies, he should serve to inspire England, while the South Africans, clearly would prefer not to see him in the side. It is telling that Lancashire have won three and drawn two of the five championship games he has played this season, whilst only managing two draws and a loss when he has been absent.

For all the positives of his Flintoff's return, however, there is no compelling evidence to suggest he merits batting at number six. He has struck some sort of form of late, although the cavalier nature of his recent knocks is not what is generally required from a top-order Test batsman. And it is three years since his last Test hundred.

With this in mind, have England erred on the side of selectorial caution - yet again - in refraining from recalling Matt Prior? Ambrose has an extremely limited batting technique; and against bowlers who do not feed his cut shot with regularity, it is hard to envisage him making important runs. Add his increasingly fallible glove-work and the selectors have had ample time to recognise he is not the man to end the keeping debate. Prior's keeping has many faults - just ask Ryan Sidebottom. But Ambrose's grim run of form - passing 11 just twice in 11 completed international innings - compounded by the uncertainty of Flintoff's batting, lends England's lower middle-order a real sense of vulnerability. All signs suggest Prior has a sufficiently developed game to average 10 more at number six than the 26 Collingwood has managed in his last eight Tests, while his keeping is also said to have improved markedly this season.

So England can be reasonably content with their endeavours in the opening Test, and should not be unduly disheartened by failing to force a victory, given that the previous five Tests at Lord's have also been draws. The Test will be remembered for Kevin Pietersen's superb 152 in a series that promises to be amongst the standouts of his career. Yet Ian Bell's 199 could be of more significance for the development of England as a side. He has always had a fine technique and a classy and extremely attractive game; here he showed he could play match-shaping innings against top-class opposition. With Flintoff and Ambrose directly below him, Bell will know England require more of the same.

Should England's selectors have made more than one change?


Richard Lake said...

It's a difficult call. I agree we need Fred for his bowling which gets him in the team on its own. Having said that, the other pitches are less likely to be the bowler's greaveyard that this was. Also, I cannot believe that he can be trusted in a four man bowling attack, so surely Collingwood has to go.

Fred's batting, much like Vaughan's, has always been better in international cricket than in the county game. Also, while 6 and 7 look fragile, our number 8 looks like a real star with the bat - if only he could bowl a few more wicket-taking deliveries.

As for Ambrose, he's neither the best batsman (Prior), keeper (Read) or compromise (Foster). However, having been selected, I don't like the chopping and changing. England are reaping the benefit of consistent selection of Anderson, Bell and Strauss. However, Ambrose must know that he needs an innings soon to maintain his position.

Jrod said...

Perhaps Simon Jones at 6, as no one in the english team can keep him out.


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Philip Oliver said...

Ambrose deserves the rest of this series and even then the selectors shouldn't go back to Prior.

His keeping was a liability and we shouldn't place too much emphasis on his batting ability.

Rob said...

Ambrose is a decent cricketer and has performed steadily for England. He has scored runs when he has needed to, and dug England out of several holes.

He deserves more chances. I saw Prior keep wicket a month ago, and he was dreadful. Though he can bat.

Chrispy said...

Foster must be next in line. He is rated by Read himself as in the two top glovemen in the country and he can bat. Specifcally in ODI's he bats how England currently seem to want their keeper to bat. If they want an opener Prior or Mustard is needed, if they want a number 7 then Foster is your man. Long term I think Kieswetter is looking good, but he will be another two years. As for Davies, decent bat, but again not exceptional with the gloves. It is a problem and 6 and 7 look like problems for England. Flintoff is fine at 7, but the only keepers qualified for England who can bat at 6 are Pothas and Prior. The best glovemen are Foster and Read. Foster at 6? Let's see what he has got maybe, but I fear it is a problem we can not expect to solve any time soon.