Mickey Arthur this week denounced the recall of Steve Harmison as a desperate and short term move by England which took no account of the upcoming 2009 Ashes series. He was right. Michael Atherton tore into the selectors both in general and specifically for recalling Harmison in The Times, stating that they were sending out the wrong message about selection. He was right. Harmison would have been a temporary and short sighted pick. He is bowling well at present and would undoubtedly take wickets, but he doesn’t play ODI’s, he doesn’t travel as every Tom, Dick and Harry knows and he takes a good few matches to get into form, largely because he doesn’t put in the training which other players do. So that would make him available for the second Test series of every summer which just is not viable.
Meanwhile, “The Michael Vaughan Batting Club”, to quote a friend, seems now to be more exclusive and cosy than ever, when it’s hegemony should be in the process of being disrupted. To the untrained eye it appears as though England have imploded in a relatively short period of time. However, look a little closer and the problems have been mounting for a year. The series loss to India was unfortunate, but signalled the start of the latest period of turmoil. The embarrassing performance in Sri Lanka hit the side hard and many a mistake was made. Owais Shah, one of England’s best players of spin and slow, low pitches was bafflingly left out of the side so as to accommodate Ravi Bopara, who proceeded to have one of the worst debuts by an England Test player. And following a series of drops, Matt Prior himself was dropped, which saw Tim Ambrose take over the gloves, another compromise between keeping and batting ability was made.
To New Zealand and one poor match spelled the end for Matthew Hoggard, whilst Steve Harmison finally got what had been coming his way for the previous two years. Team England escaped with a 2-1 series win, but they had been expected to thrash the Kiwis. Tim Ambrose and Paul Collingwood looked good and Andrew Strauss appeared to be back to his best. However, the fact that the Kiwis are a very limited side was completely forgotten. On to the home series against New Zealand and England faced an even more limited side, eventually triumphing 2-0. However, they deserved to lose the second Test after yet more woeful batting and despite a Michael Vaughan revival (currently expected in 1 in 4 series). A good side would have thrashed the Kiwis twice.
Then South Africa arrived and on a placid pitch England racked up the runs, but the ease with which South Africa avoided defeat showed that the pitch had played a major role. The key point was also that only Ian Bell and Kevin Pietersen made big runs. The bowling attack meanwhile lacked hostility and pace. Whilst swing may account for average batsman, good batsmen need to be tested with pace and bounce. Andrew Flintoff’s return has been claimed to have unbalanced the side. That is simply not true. He has kept this England side in the hunt and given them drive which was sorely lacking. Ultimately, the sad truth is that England are playing a very good side, a testing side and they are realising that they are just not good enough.
Alistair Cook last scored a ton ten Tests ago, but at least he has averaged 40.00 since November 2007. Vaughan is averaging 27.52 since the start of the Sri Lanka tour, with 1 hundred in 23 innings. Collingwood averages 28.25 in the same period with no hundreds in 18 innings. And Tim Ambrose’s average in down to 26.76 as it continues it’s descent. England can not afford to keep on carrying players, but that is exactly what they continue to do. The term “Michael Vaughan Batting Club” is of course meant to be comical, but it sums up this current England side perfectly. Vaughan has always been staunchly loyal to his charges and this was once a virtue, in the days after the brutally honest regime of Nasser Hussain, but it has now most certainly become a problem, with judgement now blurred by loyalty.
Andrew Strauss was out of form for an age before he was finally dropped and then recalled without hitting a single run in county cricket. Paul Collingwood was dropped for one match before being recalled for the current Test in place of Stuart Broad. The reasoning behind this seemed stupid at the start and even stupider now. Stuart Broad needed a rest, yet is playing a four day game for Nottinghamshire. The extra batsman would balance the side, yet they essentially replaced a cricketer who has averaged 55 this year with one who has averaged 8. Are the fans missing something here? The end result was obvious for everyone to see even before Collingwood had gone out to bat and once he was there it was even more painfully obvious, no less so than to Collingwood himself, whose torturous 45 minute innings was packed full of nerves and completely devoid of any semblance of confidence. His lack of confidence seems even to be effecting his fielding, as he dropped a relatively easy catch off of Neil McKenzie later on.
England need a reality check and now. They will lose this series, that is all but a certainty, barring a Flintoff inspired miracle and changes to the team. Even worse though, they will slip to 4th in the world and are likely to be humiliated in India and at home by Australia if they do not do what is necessary and change the batting line-up. If it means changing the captain then so be it. Players can only live on past glories for so long and Geoffrey Boycott is not alone in seeing Vaughan as a cricketer who is far from the man who peaked in Australia in 2002. It isn’t as if he excels for Yorkshire either and one good score every other series simply isn’t enough. Who comes in for Vaughan and Collingwood is up for debate, but the leading candidates are Ravi Bopara and Owais Shah, whilst the likes of Rob Key and Joe Denly will be watching the latest troubles of Cook and Strauss with great interest. The captaincy would have to pass to either a younger player, or the more experienced Andrew Strauss, who is statistically proven to improve his run output as captain, averaging around 15 runs more as captain for Middlesex and England (55.66). Vaughan incidentally averages 5.62 runs less as captain (36.02).
On the wicket keeping front it is probably time to go with the best keeper in the country, who in my opinion is James Foster. He will also fit nicely into the ODI side, allowing England to keep consistency of selection which they see as being crucial. If Broad has been returned to county cricket to work on his bowling then playing four bowlers becomes an easier task for England, with the current incumbents the most deserving, although Broad and Simon Jones would be pushing the likes of Bopara and Sidebottom hard for their places in the near future. It is worth noting that at the moment Broad and Jones could only play in a five man attack. Perhaps if the batting line-up could deliver the runs then five bowlers would once again be a viable option. For the moment though it is not.
England Test Batting Averages since November 2007:
Flintoff 45.5 (3 innings, 1 not out)
Bopara 8.40 (5 innings)
Test Debuts Since 2000:
4 Wicket Keeper debuts;
10 Batsman debuts;
22 Bowler debuts;
3 Allrounder debuts.
Test Debuts Since Ashes 2005:
2 Wicket Keeper debuts;
2 Batsman debuts;
9 Bowler debuts;
1 Allrounder debut.