This break with tradition follows the one taken last Thursday, when the selectors announced that Michael Atherton will continue as captain. It is clear that the selectors want to be bold and positive in their decisions and by announcing the squad and the captain early, they are clearly indicating that the obvious candidates have presented themselves already.
Now that Atherton has decided to carry on as captain, the youngest since The Hon Ivo Bligh took a side to Australia in 1882, the 17-strong squad should comprise the 12 from The Oval plus five others, chosen from a small pool containing Mike Gatting, Robin Smith, Angus Fraser, Shaun Udal, Chris Lewis, Dominic Cork, Mark Ilott, Ian Salisbury and Neil Fairbrother.
Far from making things easier, England's crushing victory over South Africa last week has confused the issue. Since relinquishing the England captaincy, Graham Gooch's Test- match form has dropped dramatically. This has happened before, but whereas previous troughs have coincided with a poor run for Essex, this has not been the case this time. The suggestion, in some quarters, that he can no longer motivate himself to the same degree as when he was captain does him a harsh injustice. In any case, nobody played Shane Warne as well last year and, for that reason alone, Atherton should want him in the side.
Gooch, though, may feel that time is catching up with him. Nobody works harder at his game, but despite extra fielding practice every morning, he still dropped two relatively simple catches at The Oval. He is still hungry for Test cricket, but modern tours, particularly this one as it zig-zags back and forth between Tests and one-dayers at the behest of TV schedules, are easier for young men to cope with.
Despite that, John Crawley may have to wait a while longer. There is no doubt that the selectors recognise Crawley as an outstanding talent who has a minor technical flaw with his footwork. By not moving his back foot into line, he leaves himself vulnerable to balls pitching just wide of off-stump. Whether or not a long Ashes tour is the place to iron this out is open to question, and a leading role on the A team tour to India may prove more valuable than a bit-part Down Under.
If recent patterns are anything to go by, Australia's spinners, especially Warne, will provide the main threat to England's batting. There is no doubt that Warne's leg-break and flipper are the danger balls. One way to counter that has been to play left-handers and, apart from Thorpe, whose stupendous form makes him an automatic choice, it may be prudent to pick Fairbrother in case Warne ties England's right-handed majority in knots.
Both Atherton and Ray Illingworth know England have to be aggressive, and the latter will probably push for Gatting's inclusion, not least for his bulldog spirit. If Gatting goes, there can be no place for Robin Smith. He may rue his poor form which meant he was absent against the all-seam attack of South Africa, to which his game is best suited.
If England win the Ashes without Smith, he will find it a long road back. He is a good team man, but even he will find it hard not to feel bitter after the faith shown in Hick, who, like Gatting before him, has taken a long time to flower. Whether or not the born-again Hick goes on to full bloom, will be sorely tested by his moustachioed tormentor of yore, Merv Hughes. It wil be a shame if big, bad Merv has had to clean up his act. Verbal exchanges have always been part and parcel of an Ashes Test, and as long as the posturing doesn't go over the top, it should be tolerated.
The bowlers just about pick themselves and, barring any horrible injuries between now and October, Angus Fraser, Phil Tufnell and Shaun Udal should join the four seamers who played at The Oval. However, if Hick is thought capable of doing the off-spinning role, Ian Salisbury would be the more attacking option as second spinner. Consideration should also be given to Mark Ilott, who swung the Kookaburra ball around during the A team's tour of South Africa. Such things, though, are never guaranteed, and Ilott has struggled with a groin injury for most of the summer. With Rhodes keeping wicket and Stewart acting as his deputy, England can afford to take two all-rounders. If Craig White recovers in time from his shin splints, either he, or Chris Lewis, could find themselves partnering Dominic Cork.
With the emphasis clearly on youth, England must bring back the Ashes without the captain pulling anything extraordinary out of his pocket. After a drawn series against South Africa, themselves unbroken after two series against the Aussies, England must take heart. Apart from the brilliance of David Boon, Mark Waugh, Warne and Tim May, Australia have two ageing fast bowlers and a new captain. Now is the time to exploit them.
Possible squad: Atherton, Stewart, Gooch, Hick, Thorpe, Gatting, Fairbrother or Crawley, Cork, Lewis, Rhodes, DeFreitas, Gough, Malcolm, Benjamin, Fraser, Tufnell, Udal.Reuse content