Angus Fraser: Plunkett ducks out but his potential can give Fletcher perfect balance
Liam Plunkett possesses the raw ingredients to reach the top
Sunday 12 March 2006
Liam Plunkett looked a disappointed man as he made his way from the Punjab Cricket Association ground in Mohali yesterday. His reaction to being dismissed for nought was understandable. Plunkett was principally selected in the Second Test against India to take wickets but, unlike far too many lower-order batsmen, he cares deeply about his batting, and getting caught down the leg-side off Munaf Patel hurt.
Ultimately, it will be Plunkett's bowling that dictates how much Test cricket he plays in the next decade, but England are equally keen for him to work on his batting, in the hope that he can develop into a player capable of scoring runs at No 8.
Under Duncan Fletcher's guidance, England have placed great emphasis on at least one of their bowlers - along with Andrew Flintoff - being able to bat. The spin bowling of Ashley Giles has often been derided but his batting over the past five years has been invaluable. In 52 Tests, Giles has scored 1,347 runs at an average of almost 21. He may not be blessed with a wide array of strokes but Giles gets stuck in and his ability to hang around with the top order has allowed England to fight their way out of many tricky situations.
But Giles will be 33 next Sunday, and he has a dodgy hip. He is determined to play for England for another couple of years but his international career is coming to an end. And England, if they wish to continue to close the gap between themselves and Australia, need to find or work with a bowler who can average more than 20 with the bat.
Matthew Hoggard tries hard but he is not good enough, while Simon Jones and Stephen Harmison enjoy being able to come out and swing their bats. Ideally, it would be Monty Panesar who slipped selflessly into Giles's position but, while his bowling shows enormous promise, the batting is weak. If Fletcher were to turn Panesar into a Test-class No 8, it could possibly be the greatest achievement of his coaching career.
England are not the only team that struggle to achieve the perfect balance of five front-line bowlers and seven or eight capable batsmen. The brilliance of Glenn McGrath, Shane Warne and Adam Gilchrist has allowed Australia to get away with playing seven specialist batsmen and four bowlers but, as their powers wane, they are having to compromise.
India are also in a quandary. They, too, want a long batting line-up and, in Nagpur, Irfan Pathan, an opening bowler with a batting average of 29, came in at eight. Yet the tactic left the hosts with only four bowlers. In an attempt to rectify this in Mohali, a batsman - VVS Laxman - was omitted and Piyush Chawla, the 17-year-old leg-spinner, was given his Test debut. But now India's batting line-up looks vulnerable.
The lack of batting prowess among England's first-choice bowlers forced the selectors to play Ian Blackwell in Nagpur. Blackwell is a gifted, if somewhat lazy, cricketer who unfortunately did not look a Test player. He was dropped and Plunkett has been given a chance.
It is unfair to expect Plunkett, at the age of 20, to slip straight into the role but he has made a good impression on and off the field with England. Plunkett is a mature and diligent young man, and the fighting half-century he scored in a One-Day International against Pakistan highlighted his potential with the bat.
As a fast bowler he still has some way to go before he begins to push Hoggard, Harmison and Jones but he is tall, fit, strong and keen. His run-up and action need grooving - he appears to run in to bowl with his feet landing in front of each other as though they need to land on an imaginary white line, something that will affect his balance - but this will come through bowling.
Plunkett has not had the most auspicious of starts to his Test career, having scored nine runs in three innings and taken 2 for 139 with the ball. But he possesses the raw ingredients to reach the top and with the right guidance he will be contending for a regular place before too long.
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