Whilst the media circus is frenzying around the appointment of the new England Cricket Captain and his first Test match in charge, the announcement of the limited overs squad to take on South Africa has passed relatively under the radar. Whatever the rights and wrongs of who is and is not in the Test squad, it is hard to argue that the limited overs squad is far wrong, especially after the inclusion of two of the best domestic one day players in England this year, in Samit Patel and Matt Prior.
Andrew Flintoff’s return essentially allows England to replace a pace bowler with an allrounder and a brilliant one at that. More importantly though, England seem to have decided that they want an aggressive keeper batsman who can open the innings and indeed bat through it if required. The only candidate capable of this job was Matt Prior and he has rightfully been recalled. Whilst Phil Mustard is aggressive, he has not often made the big match defining innings required of a top order batsman. If Prior gets to fifty you now sense that he could go on to a hundred. There will of course be those who criticise his selection as compromising on wicket keeping ability. However, Prior’s mistakes with the gloves came in Test cricket, not limited overs cricket, where the demands of concentration and focus are not as severe on keepers as in Test match cricket, where the keeper can find himself in the field for 90 overs a day, three days out of five, as opposed to just 50 overs. Because of the very nature of the ODI and Twenty20 games there are not as many catches for keepers either and in fact there are more stumping and run out opportunities, which are Prior’s strong point as a keeper. He has also been working extremely hard at Sussex on his keeping, which has reportedly improved and he has been churning out the runs consistently.
With Kevin Pietersen now rightfully elevated to number three in the batting line-up, from where he can dictate the innings, England’s top three looks very strong, with Ian Bell acting as the foil around whom the others can bat, but whom himself can also take advantage of the Powerplay overs, with his brilliant footwork and ability to hit over the top. England need to reassess who bats at four however. Owais Shah gave a master class in limited overs batting on Monday for Middlesex against Somerset, as he essentially won the game for his side with a brilliantly paced 96. Batting at number three he rescued his side from what could easily have been humiliation and almost single handedly set a competitive target. He has comfortably been the best England One Day player over the last year and the most consistent. He has previously had to settle for late order cameos for England, coming in at number six. He is though a top order batsman and is especially adept at milking the spinners, with his wristy strokeplay. England should utilise his skills earlier and for longer and he, not Ravi Bopara, should be coming in at four.
Bopara you sense needs to settle in the side and would benefit from having the pressure taken off his shoulders for now by coming in at number six. He has played his best innings for England down the order and the nature of the position would help him to flourish I believe, as he would be capable of playing a patient rebuilding game or an aggressive cameo. The situation would not allow him time to think about what he was doing, how fast he was scoring or how much pressure he was under. A settled Bopara could then look to work his way up the order at a later date, although he looks the natural successor to Paul Collingwood long term. Collingwood himself will of course bat at number five, the position he has so expertly made his own over the last few years.
Flintoff should be scheduled to bat at number seven, although he could of course be promoted depending on the match situation. Whatever happens you don’t want Flintoff in before the last ten to fifteen overs against the spinners, or you risk losing him before the period in which he can inflict the most damage, against the faster bowlers. Doubling the power down the order, Luke Wright should feature at number eight. His best innings for England have come down the order and he could be given full license here to unleash his power in the death overs. With two such power hitters lurking down the order, the side would be well balanced and filled with matchwinners and therefore the pressure would be relieved on the likes of Pietersen and Flintoff, who would be able to perform with more freedom.
With Stuart Broad and Graeme Swann following in the order, the batting could not be any stronger, with number eleven James Anderson also far from being the rabbit he used to be. Broad would for me bat above Swann, as he has more potential and skill with the bat and has two modes of play. Both could cause damage at the end of the innings if required. So the batting line-up looks formidable, with Alistair Cook and Samit Patel on standby, along with Ryan Sidebottom and Chris Tremlett in this particular squad. Whilst Paul Collingwood is suspended I would play Samit Patel, who should remain a part of the squad to play in place of either Bopara or Wright on those pitches which offer more for spinners. He would be an able second spinner I believe.
So who is unlucky? Well, Mascarenhas is obviously one who is unfortunate to be discarded altogether, whilst Vikram Solanki is another, who after his scintillating domestic form was perhaps worthy of a look in. On the bowling front, Kabir Ali has been the best bowler in domestic cricket this year and could add another wicket taking option to the line-up, whilst Liam Plunkett, so good in Australia, is looking to prove his form and fitness. Finally, Mustard and more so James Foster are unfortunate to lose out to Prior. Foster would have been the ideal candidate to play down the order for England, as he does for Essex with such aplomb. The way England are going to play dictates that he is not in the side however.
The bowling looks stronger for the return of Flintoff for Sidebottom, whose figures (Average: 44.37, Economy: 4.86, S/R: 54.7) are hardly impressive over the last few series against New Zealand. There are also questions over his fitness. England would look threatening with three impressive and contrasting One Day performers in Anderson, Broad and Flintoff, who offer swing, seam, bounce, pace and consistency between them. The vastly improved Swann would offer the wiley spin option. Meanwhile, the fifth bowling options are plentiful with the recently impressive Collingwood well supported by the likes of Bopara and the impressive death bowling of Luke Wright. Samit Patel, when playing would offer a decent second spinning option, with Shah available if needed.
The Test match series may have gone against South Africa and it may yet be a complete disaster. However, England are making progress in Limited Overs cricket, albeit with recent defeats to New Zealand, both home and away. They have beaten Australia (a), India (h) and Sri Lanka (a) in the last 18 months, which would have been unthinkable two years ago. South Africa are currently the best ODI side in the world and for good reason. However, England have picked a squad capable of challenging them and even beating them. England are capable of beating any team in the world. Hopefully Pietersen’s brand of captaincy will encourage his charges to be bold and aggressive and play the kind of cricket we all know that they can play.
England ODI Team to take on South Africa:
Matt Prior (wk)
Kevin Pietersen (c)
Squad: Alistair Cook, Samit Patel, Dimitri Mascarenhas, Kabir Ali.