It is untrue that England’s selectors have entirely lost the capacity for surprise. Sometimes, it seems that way when the mantra of continuity, continuity, continuity is preached as if it were one of the gospels.
With the team 2-0 ahead in the Ashes series and Australia seemingly at their mercy there were three amendments yesterday in the party chosen for the third Investec Test which begins at Old Trafford on Thursday. True, there were no completely new names but the unexpectedly large squad of 14 represented further evidence that no player is ever entirely forgotten in the regime operated by Geoff Miller, the chairman of selectors, or that none can ever be quite sure of his place, which is as it should be.
The size of the party offers Andy Flower, the coach, and Alastair Cook, the captain, all the permutations they could wish for in selecting the starting XI at Old Trafford. These cover pace, bounce, swing and spin.
Chris Tremlett has been selected in the squad after last playing for England in January 2012 since when he has had to combat back and knee injuries. Monty Panesar is there as a possible partner for Graeme Swann should the pitch and weather be ridiculously dry. James Taylor, the tiny Nottinghamshire batsman, has been picked as cover for Kevin Pietersen.
Miller, giving little away as usual, said: “Kevin Pietersen is continuing his recovery from a calf strain and he will be assessed by the medical team closer to the start of the Test and we have therefore included an extra batsman in James Taylor who has been in good form for Nottinghamshire this season.
“Chris Tremlett has worked hard to regain fitness and form following a couple of injuries and his performances for Surrey this season have been very encouraging. Including an additional spinner in Monty Panesar who has plenty of international experience provides Alastair Cook and Andy Flower with a number of options.”
For the next day or two, possibly up until the moment of the toss, attention will be on the fitness or otherwise of Pietersen. He has been having treatment for a calf strain which prevented him fielding during Australia’s second innings at Lord’s. Pietersen has had a quiet series so far, though the importance of his careful 64 in the second innings at Trent Bridge after coming in at 11 for 2 should not be overlooked. He will be eager to play on Thursday, desperate to make a lasting impression on a home Ashes series for the first time since 2005.
Fully reintegrated Pietersen may be after his little imbroglio with selectors and team-mates last summer, which led to his being dropped, but he has not yet had an opportunity to win back, or perhaps capture for the first time, the hearts and minds of England supporters. He has hardly been greeted with rapturous receptions this summer and it is still difficult to imagine him generating the clear warmth of feeling which was accorded Joe Root’s sublime 180 in the second Test at Lord’s.
It is to be hoped Pietersen makes the starting line in Manchester. England are a better side with him than without him which is why they eventually reincorporated him last year. There would be a certain irony if the diminutive Taylor were to replace him.
Reports abounded that Pietersen was not exactly enamoured of Taylor’s method when the latter made his Test debut against South Africa at Headingley last year and they shared a partnership of 147. Nor were the selectors, as it happened, since they summarily dropped him after the next Test and told him to sort out his technique, especially in dealing with balls outside off stump.
Taylor is an attractive batsman, fearless and unafraid of innovation. He has made plenty of Championship runs this summer and occupied the crease doggedly this weekend in his guest appearance for Sussex, made at the selectors’ behest, against Australia.
Nobody suspects that he is the finished article and were he to play it would be intriguing to see or hear the congratulatory message from Pietersen. But he may be more complete than many who have played for England in the past and who are filling the berths in Australia’s order now.
Tremlett is unlikely at this stage to dislodge the pace trio in possession, Jimmy Anderson, Stuart Broad and Tim Bresnan. But he has moved in front of Steve Finn and Graham Onions, both of whom have work to do to be recalled, and he can probably book his passage to Australia this winter.
A spell with Middlesex, while listening to what England want of him, will do Finn good. He may be receiving mixed messages which is never beneficial but at 24 he should be approaching his prime as a fast bowler. He needs to resolve what he wants his run up to be and what it can do for him.
Onions has been a fringe player for England. He played the most recent of his nine Tests 13 months ago after recovering from a career-threatening back injury but he is destined not to be part of the frontline attack.
England squad: third Ashes test
* For the Old Trafford Test against Australia, starting on Thursday (showing age and number of tests)
A N Cook (capt, Essex) 28 94
J E Root (Yorkshire) 22 8
I J L Trott (Warwickshire) 32 45
K P Pietersen (Surrey) 33 96
I R Bell (Warwickshire) 31 90
J M Bairstow (Yorkshire) 23 10
J W A Taylor (Notts) 23 2
M J Prior (wkt, Sussex) 31 69
T T Bresnan (Yorkshire) 28 19
S C J Broad (Notts) 27 59
G P Swann (Notts) 34 54
J M Anderson (Lancs) 30 84
M S Panesar (Sussex) 31 48
C T Tremlett (Surrey) 31 11