Some good news for England from Brisbane of all places. In the city where England fell to a disastrous defeat in the first Test of the Ashes series, Tim Bresnan took a wicket on Thursday in his first over for almost four months. He finished the day with 4 for 31 from 10 overs, thus immediately staking a rather substantial claim to a return to the Test team.
As the official squad dodged heavy showers in Alice Springs, where the climate normally resembles an inferno, supplying further evidence to the doomsayers that this tour is fated, Bresnan went through his paces for the England Performance Programme. He looked brisk and efficient, two of Bresnan’s major attributes, and is now fully recovered from the stress fracture in his back which he sustained in the fourth Test of the Ashes series at home in the summer.
Bresnan was brought on this tour as a supplementary player, travelling with the squad though not a member of it, while his recovery was monitored. That status is now likely to alter instantly.
The tourists’ wretched endeavours at The Gabba, where they played innocuously for three days, have raised Bresnan’s stock, which was already operating in a bull market. Recovery, however, does not mean that he has enough cricket in his legs to make a return to the Test team straightaway. It would say as much for England’s predicament as for Bresnan’s standing were he to be picked for the second Test, which starts in Adelaide next week.
Several options for the Adelaide XI are beginning to emerge as the dust starts to settle on the events of the past few days. They have encompassed heavy defeat, the return home of Jonathan Trott with a stress-related illness and all manner of opinions about the sledging war.
Retaining the status quo is not an option simply because Trott must be replaced. If Joe Root is moved to No 3, as is increasingly likely, his place at No 6 must be filled. There are three contenders: Jonny Bairstow, Ben Stokes and Gary Ballance.
Although performances in the two-day match against a Cricket Australia Chairman’s XI starting on Friday may be taken into consideration, the selection will be largely based on past record and gut instinct. Bairstow is the only one of the trio to have played in Tests, which might make him the marginal favourite. But it has not been an entirely joyous experience and Ballance, on his first senior tour, impressed every selector who saw him last summer when he made six Championship hundreds for Yorkshire.
Ballance, like Stokes, is a left-handed batsman, which may be a small point in their favour. Stokes is an exciting prospect who, at 22, would seem to have a long Test career ahead of him. He is a genuine all-rounder who bowls at a lively pace and a batsman of the no-nonsense brigade.
Asked on Thursday whether he thought of himself as a batsman who bowls or a bowler who bats, Stokes said he was an all-rounder. “The last two years my bowling’s been the stronger point, I think,” he said. “But I still feel that the batting is the strong part of my game. But the bowling’s improving, which is a bonus. I’ve just got to get some solid performances in and some consistency with the bat. Just all-rounder, that’ll do.”
Make of that what you will but it could be tremendous for English cricket if he trains on. In helping Durham win the County Championship this year, Stokes scored 726 runs at 31.57 and took 44 wickets at 26.61, averages which are the right way round for an all-rounder.
Whether he is ready to be thrown into the cauldron in a series in which England suddenly find themselves behind will only be known when it happens. But he cannot have been brought along solely with an eye on the future and clearly has a bit about him.
He is a New Zealander by birth and came to England as a boy when his father arrived in Cumbria to coach the Workington rugby league team. It is certain Australia would mention his background were he to play in the Test.
Stokes said: “Yes, it would be pretty obvious, wouldn’t it? If it does come up I would just laugh because I’m out here playing with the Three Lions. If they decide to get into that I’ll get back to them in Geordie slang and they won’t understand us.”
Perhaps Stokes’ best chance of making his debut is if England opt to play two spinners in Adelaide. It is not a move they could make without seeing how the drop-in pitch looks, but if it would be a gamble it might be a calculated one.
Both Sheffield Shield matches to be played at the Adelaide Oval so far this season have been draws, the first high-scoring, on pitches that have generally been slow and low. Of the 55 wickets to fall, 30 have been to spin, of the leg, off and left-arm orthodox variety.
England will be well aware of that and may presume that their spin is superior to Australia’s spin. While the match at The Gabba went some way to disproving that, Graeme Swann is a resilient, highly capable soul who will be eager to atone for his shortcomings there and will be emboldened by having taking seven wickets (2 for 70 and 5 for 91) at Adelaide three years ago in England’s crushing victory.
Swann and Monty Panesar combined well in India last year but England would prefer the insurance of a third seamer if they go down that route. With Matt Prior in no sort of form they would not put him up to six or Bresnan at seven, which is probably a place too high for him. But Stokes batting at six and being used as third seamer may have its attractions.
It would represent a full recovery from his misdemeanours of a year ago. Stokes was sent home from the Performance Programme in Australia for keeping late nights. He had to impress the England coach, Andy Flower, not only with his performances but with the confirmation that he had mended his ways.
He said: “It was easy because I just looked at the bigger picture, thought, ‘I’m in this profession to play at the highest level’, so it wasn’t hard to go away and make sure I did them things, because if I didn’t I probably wouldn’t be where I am now.”
A N Cook
M A Carberry
J E Root
K P Pietersen
I R Bell
J M Bairstow/G S Ballance
M J Prior
T T Bresnan
S C J Broad
G P Swann
J M Anderson
B A Stokes
M S Panesar