England's dithering in naming a final spinner for the three-Test tour of India can only be the result of doubts over the fitness of Ashley Giles.
When David Graveney, England's chairman of selectors, announced the Test and one-day squads for India yesterday morning he suggested there was no reason for his committee to make "a hasty decision" and that the delay would give it more time to study Ian Blackwell, Alex Loudon and Monty Panesar.
Duncan Fletcher's involvement with the England team will have prevented him from seeing much of Panesar and the coach - currently at home in Cape Town - would probably like to watch him at first hand before making a decision. But exactly what fresh information he expects from any of the contenders at Loughborough University in January is difficult to comprehend.
Concerns over the fitness of Giles are understandable, and the last time England toured with injured players - to Australia in 2002-03 - it proved disastrous. Giles returned home early from England's pre-Christmas tour of Pakistan and immediately had an arthroscopic operation on his right hip. It was hoped the 10-week break would give him time to recover but the team are now less than a month away from departing for India and their premier spinner has only just started jogging.
Once Giles regains confidence in his hip progress should quicken up and the 32-year-old intends to have his first bowl since 28 November next week. The selectors will keenly await a report on the session and will announce the 16th tourist after that.
The chances of Giles being available for selection in the first Test on 1 March will dictate which type of spinner England opt for. If Giles has no chance of playing in Nagpur the selectors will pick either Blackwell or Panesar - a left-arm spinner who turns the ball away from right-handed batsmen.
Loudon will enter the equation only if Giles is fit because England may want the back-up spinner to be a right-armer. Realistically, it has to be a left-armer, because bowlers who turn the ball away from the bat are more likely match-winners.
The spinner England pick will find pitches that help him, but taking wickets will still be a huge challenge. Indian batsmen are wonderful players of spin, as Sri Lanka found out in a three-Test series before Christmas. India backed their batsmen to get the better of Muttiah Muralitharan - the second highest wicket-taker in Test cricket - and they did. India won 2-0.
England need Giles to be fit because he is the only spinner Michael Vaughan can rely on. Shaun Udal has taken almost 700 first-class wickets but his three Test scalps in Pakistan cost 92 runs apiece. Giles fared little better but 51 of his 140 Test wickets have been taken on the subcontinent.
The one consolation is that turning pitches tend to offer assistance for the faster bowlers. If the seam of a cricket ball bowled by a spinner grips the surface and turns, then it is going to do the same for a seamer. This should give Andrew Flintoff and Stephen Harmison something to work with. The rough, dry nature of the pitches will scuff the ball up and this, in turn, should allow Simon Jones to reverse-swing the old ball.
If England are to compete with India they will need their batsmen to post totals in excess of 450. To do this they will have to deal with the twin spin threat of Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh. England have the line-up to do this but they will need to show more discipline than in Pakistan.
Kevin Pietersen is the batsman most in need of a good tour. Pietersen has passed 50 in five of his 16 Test innings and averages 45 in this form of the game, but the manner in which he was dismissed on a couple of occasions in Pakistan, along with ill-judged comments about Darren Gough being brought back into the one-day side, has left him short of Brownie points.
England are yet to find out if Flintoff will miss part of the tour. Flintoff's wife, Rachael, is due to give birth during the third Test and the all-rounder wants to be present. The couple's first child, Holly, was born a month early and this has made it hard to plan.
Should Rachael go into labour during the middle of a match it is hard to imagine Flintoff leaving the game. But if the dates turn out to be correct he will miss the Mumbai Test.
Pietersen's eulogy of Gough failed to win him a place in England's one-day squad and the fast bowler's international career now appears to have ended. England will use the seven matches to give Liam Plunkett and James Anderson experience before the World Cup and Gough can now look to capitalise on his success in Strictly Come Dancing and become a fully fledged celebrity.
Gough, unsurprisingly, was upset at being overlooked. "I'm disappointed because I think I am one of the best bowlers at the end of a one-day match," he said.
"They have to find someone to bowl at the death with Andrew Flintoff because at the moment that's where they're losing games. You can't buy one of them at a local superstore - it takes years and years."
Vikram Solanki is unfortunate to have been omitted from the one-day squad. His place has been given to Ian Bell in an attempt to make the one-day side as close as possible to the Test team. This will prove successful only if the squad have some energy left after what will be a challenging Test series.Reuse content