For those of us who grew up with cricket in the 1980s, the current state of consistency in the England selection is a massive sea change. The 1988 series against West Indies saw 23 players and four captains used in a five match series, with a further 5 players in the team for the one off match against Sri Lanka. To put that into context, if you took the last 28 players to debut for England, you would be back to Rob Key’s debut in 2002 and include players such as Antony McGrath, Ed Smith and Richard Johnson, who have long left the international reckoning. From 1980 to 1988, 50 players made their debut for England. Since 2000, the number of debutants has been 39, despite the increasing demands on players
While 1988 was the nadir in terms of selection, even in 1986, 19 players were used in a three test series against India and 17 in the subsequent three match series against New Zealand. Even in the successful Ashes series in 1985, 17 players were used – a far cry from the twelve players used 20 years later. Indeed in 2001, 19 players were used as the side continued to struggle against the Australians.
One of the benefits that the central contracts have brought England is a consistency of selection. Players don’t need to fear a single poor score and the Team England ethic is very strong. Players become comfortable with who they are playing with and used to their roles within the team, on and off the pitch. However, there needs to be evolution with the selection and it was also revealing in comparing the teams for the first test against South Africa that only Andrew Strauss had played in the corresponding fixture four years ago, in the game that he made his debut. Therefore, while England have enjoyed a stable team, it has evolved into a new unit over the past four years.
There has been criticism of this becoming a cosy club. However, the benefits of consistency have been seen with Strauss, who has now formed a stable opening partnership with Ali Cook, even if they now both need to convert their starts into big scores. Ian Bell was under pressure for his place at the start of the series, but was given the opportunity to respond with his innings at Lords which took England from a precarious situation to a potential match-winning one. James Anderson is another player who is now benefitting from a run in the team.
The weakness with this system is that players can last for too long in the setup. But for Marcus Trescothick’s well publicised problems, he could well be keeping Cook out of the team. Previous incumbents of the top six have either retired at the top (Hussein, Thorpe) or had injuries that have taken them out of the team (Butcher). The current form of Michael Vaughan and in particular Paul Collingwood should possibly see them left out of the team. However, this should not be done in a way that leads back to the bad old days of the 1980s. Owais Shah, Ravi Bopara and Rob Key all remain within the England setup, either as the next players in, or as the current Lions captain. England have had success by evolution, not revolution and the long term importance of a settled, but not complacent team is paramount.