Ashes 2013 selection: England's five issues over who to pick for the tour in Australia
Much of the team picks itself but Stephen Brenkley ties up a few loose ends ahead of today’s squad announcement for Australia action
1. The batsmen
Four of England’s preferred top five have played a combined 337 Tests between them. As an order, it is harder to qualify for than the Benedictine monkhood.
Joining Alastair Cook (97 Tests), Kevin Pietersen (99 – and what an outpouring of joy there will be in Brisbane when he becomes the 10th man to play 100 Tests for England), Ian Bell (93) and Jonathan Trott (48) in the inviolable bunch is Joe Root (11). They will need two lieutenants for the Ashes tour.
Nick Compton was replaced as opener by Root in the middle of the summer, largely on grounds of class and without having done much wrong. His strict replacement in terms of personnel was Jonny Bairstow, who batted at six, but failed to pull up trees and was dropped for the final Ashes Test. Compton has not been as prolific for Somerset in 2013 as he was in 2012 but that might have been expected given the way he was summarily discarded. He still has two hundreds, a couple of nineties, an average above 40 and stoicism aplenty.
England will need a reserve opener and unless they alight on Michael Carberry, who came with a late summer flurry of Second Divison runs for Hampshire, Compton deserves to go to Australia.
Bairstow still has a future but the lack of rigidity in his method has been exposed. It is possible that he may be included as reserve wicketkeeper. Other candidates are Eoin Morgan, always refreshingly chipper about his talent, and James Taylor, who until recently at any rate was the next cab off the rank. At Durham last week Taylor was out badly twice. This can happen but it was wretched timing, not least because a selector was present on the first occasion.
2. But who will bat six?
It is a question the selectors will have posed more than any other, except perhaps who can we take as reserve spinner and back-up wicketkeeper. It is 52 innings since any England No 6 batsman, Bell at Cardiff in 2011, scored a hundred, the longest gap since that between John Crawley and Alec Stewart, which lasted 75 innings from 1998 to 2002.
Since Bell’s 103 not out against Sri Lanka, the No 6 has contributed 1,370 runs at 29.78. Nine players, including Bell and Matt Prior, have been selected in the position.
If Bell is perhaps the most accomplished of all England performers in this pivotal spot – he scored six hundreds there at an average of 59 – it is traditionally the redoubt of the all-rounder. Tony Greig, Ian Botham, Andrew Flintoff, Alec Stewart and Trevor Bailey all appeared there with success. They knew what they were doing.
Last summer, partly out of desperation, partly out of genuine vision, England turned to Chris Woakes. That selection was not beyond the bounds of decency but now there has arrived on the scene a potential, exciting successor to the all-rounders of yore.
His name is Ben Stokes. After trouble with authority last winter (shades of Greig, Botham and Flintoff there, if not Stewart and Bailey) he has produced a splendid body of work this season, both in Durham’s Championship campaign and in the recent one-day series against Australia.
Stokes looks to be the real deal. He ought to make the party and the idea of him being there at No 6 at The Gabba in two months should not be easily dismissed, a gamble perhaps, but an enticing one.
3. Six seamers from seven
The unremitting standard of their bowling attack is what has set England apart from the pack. It is what sets South Africa apart from England too, and keeping this pedigree pack fit and motivated is central to a fourth successive Ashes victory.
Assuming Tim Bresnan’s fitness, the primary quartet will be straightforward. The selectors will need to be satisfied – and not merely by the bowler himself – that the Yorkshire infantryman has recovered sufficiently from his stress fracture to hit the ground running as soon as the squad land in Perth along with Jimmy Anderson, Stuart Broad and Steve Finn.
The recent one-day series against Australia performed wonders for the Irishman Boyd Rankin, fast, furious, full of bounce, and he has surged ahead of Chris Tremlett, who may not now be given a chance to repeat his heroics of 2010-11.
There is a preference for tall bowlers on Australian pitches but Rankin may be better served with the Performance Programme, which will be in the country at the same time. Moreover, it should not be forgotten that there is a world of difference between bowling 10 overs in a one-day international, with which Rankin is familiar, and assembling spells in a Test match, with which he is not.
Graham Onions, who has taken 66 wickets for Durham this season in their superb assault on the Championship, has never let England down in any of his nine Tests. He saved two of them with the bat at the last gasp. Onions has ensured that he has stayed a quality performer despite several setbacks. He may lack inches but his solidity would be worth having around.
4. A helpmate for Swann
If England have nurtured a legion of fast bowlers, they are bereft of high-quality spin, a dearth which initiative upon policy has failed to address. Graeme Swann remains out on his own and he served a long county apprenticeship to get where he is now.
In case Swann should be indisposed (it does not bear contemplation) England need back-up. Monty Panesar is the only obvious contender but his selection would assume he has overcome the personal difficulties which led to his arrest two months ago.
But if not Panesar, there may be nobody. James Tredwell, admirable in many respects, has taken 13 Championship wickets for Kent this season, which forms a risible application for an Ashes tour.
It would be equally unrealistic to select Simon Kerrigan, who made his debut in the final Ashes Test at home. He looked so far from being ready for Test cricket, bless him, that his selection seemed a gross oversight. Australia have taken a liking to both Tredwell and Kerrigan.
But Kerrigan has taken a third more wickets than any other English spinner.
Ollie Rayner has 41 Championship wickets for Middlesex but he is not a serious consideration, Danny Briggs of Hampshire is seen only as a limited- overs option and certainly could not be taken to Australia.
Panesar it is then, without any clear sign that all is well.
5. The spare wicketkeeper
Often this is the least attractive spot on the tour. Unless the incumbent falls down there is almost no chance of playing. In recent times in Australia, however, Jack Richards, Warren Hegg and Chris Read have managed to usurp the intended choice.
That is unlikely to happen this time, with Matt Prior in place although he may not stay as official vice-captain. But there is a chance to begin planning the succession.
Steven Davies, reserve wicketkeeper twice before, has performed adequately in a miserable Surrey season, bookending the season with hundreds. Craig Kieswetter at Somerset has his adherents.
It is the other Somerset wicketkeeper, Jos Buttler (pictured left), who looks touched by something special. He has grown visibly in one-day cricket as a batsman, his keeping is athletic and lithe. His exposure to the nerve-shredding climaxes of one-day cricket would certainly be a factor if he had to step into the breach.
Stephen Brenkley’s squad to win the Ashes
A N Cook (capt), J M Anderson, I R Bell, T T Bresnan, S C J Broad, J C Buttler, N R D Compton, S T Finn, G Onions, M S Panesar, K P Pietersen, M J Prior, J E Root, B A Stokes, G P Swann, I J L Trott.
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