Ashes 2015: Where do the England selectors turn now?

As powers-that-be meet to discuss capitulation to Australia in the Lord’s Test, Stephen Brenkley weighs up what might be done to rescue the Ashes

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From ecstasy to agony in eight days. Maybe it was always meant to be like this, maybe Australia knew they had something in reserve and that it was simply a case of rummaging through their memory banks to find it.

The Ashes series is now level at 1-1 but what happened in the second Investec Test at Lord’s was what many observers feared would happen before it all began. It is the unexpected events of Cardiff, where England won by 169 runs, that now seem like an aberration.

The equalising victory by 405 runs, the third-largest margin in the history of the contest, contained almost no redeeming features for England as a team. There were some reasonable individual contributions – the first-innings resistance of Alastair Cook, the continued advance of Ben Stokes, the return to something like competence of Stuart Broad – but it was a crushing reversal, aggravated by the spineless surrender on Sunday afternoon.

Men who had been pummelled for three days seemed prepared to lie down and beg to be pummelled some more. They knew that Australia would come back hard because England’s Australian coach, Trevor Bayliss, had told them so. Bayliss now concedes that he might have made too much of this, that his words in essence might have put the fear of God into his new charges.

Australia, following their moderate display in Wales in the face of what was then a resolute opposition, boldly addressed the subject of changes. England must do likewise now.

The selectors’ discussions today will be fraught and complex. While there is a cast-iron case for dropping two of the middle-order batsmen, Gary Ballance and Ian Bell, there are precious few viable contenders for their places.

Part, but only part, of the reason is that the sort of pitches English county players are being asked to bat on are not always conducive to batting. This might always have been the case but the contemporary player is often not equipped to deal with them and they contrast sharply with the sort of surfaces offered for Tests.

Bayliss said after the Lord’s debacle that he could not yet put his finger on why England’s top-order displays had been so wanting lately. “No, not really, not in a short time,” he said. “Speaking to a few of the county coaches and those types of people, are the pitches the county players are playing on away from Tests so different to what we’re actually playing on out there? There’s always a lot of low scores in first-class cricket here. Is that preparing our batters actually to bat for a long time? Possibly not.”

Jonny Bairstow has been in fantastic form for Yorkshire

For more than 10 years, the England selectors have prided themselves on a policy of continuity in the Test team. In 1989 they used 29 players in a hopeless quest to try to retain the Ashes, in 1993, trying to regain them, they picked 24, in 1997, 18, in 2001, 19.

Then it changed. The last three home series against Australia, in 2005, 2009 and 2013 have seen the use of 12, 15 and 14 players respectively. It helped that England were winning but the main factor was that the selectors believed they had the right men and were willing to stick by them.

But something is awry. In England’s seven Tests this year, they have constantly lost their first three or four wickets cheaply. In 11 of their total of 14 innings the third wicket had fallen with the score at 74 or below, in five of their seven first innings, the one where the course of the match is usually set, they have been 43 for 3 or worse.

Ballance and Bell have been recidivist culprits in these falls from grace. While Ballance had a marvellous entry into Test cricket and played two sterling Tests in the West Indies when he scored a hundred and two fifties, he has been badly adrift since, usually somewhere deep behind his popping crease, with 175 runs in 10 innings.

Bell’s decline is the sadder still. This is one of the most glittering batsmen of his generation, who has appeared in 112 Test matches and two years ago secured an eternal reputation by making three crucial and sublime Ashes hundreds, all in England victories, in a series they won 3-0.

In Antigua last April, Bell made 143. It was a sumptuous innings and a pleasure to witness, as it inevitably is when he makes runs. Since then he has not, his scores being: 11, 1, 0, 0, 1, 29, 12, 1, 1, 60, 1, 11. A No 11 might think it was undue reward for his efforts in the nets.

There is no point in sending back Bell to Warwickshire to rediscover his form. There he has never lost it. In his last Championship appearance in June, by way of warming up for this series, he made 111. Those who saw it confirm that it was a top-drawer innings made in difficult conditions. The next highest score in the match was 67.

If Bell is sent back to do more of the same, it will not make him necessarily any readier to resume his Test place. There are probably differing reasons for the state of these men, none of them to do with being sure of their place in the team.

But Ballance’s technical defect has become more pronounced and seems so glaring that it cannot be repaired in the middle of such a series.

Bell might have been reduced by the sheer grind of the job. He has been around since 2004, out of the side only briefly and if there is cricket to be played, Bell usually wants to play it. He harbours ambitions to go on awhile yet and at 33 the prospect of two more Ashes series after this appeals to him. He is making mistakes, however, that do not become a batsman of his stature.

If there are to be replacements, the main candidates should come from those who played for England Lions last winter. The middle order comprised Alex Lees, Jonathan Trott, James Vince and Jonny Bairstow. Trott has since retired from international cricket, Lees and Vince have had moderate summers and Bairstow is the only one among that quartet who has made a solid case to the selectors with five hundreds this summer. The man who was dropped from the 2013 Ashes side must be recalled to the 2015 team.

But Bairstow’s biggest fans would not suggest that he should bat three or four in the England Test side. Five would be the highest he could go at present and in that case consideration would have to be given to moving Joe Root up the order.

But since Root has been so admirable at No 5, it would seem foolhardy to upgrade him merely to overcome a failing he did not create. Then again, Australia promoted Steve Smith to No 3 because there were no other feasible options and that seems to have worked so far.

There is an embarrassing shortage of decent nominees for any of the positions, which might just save Ballance and Bell. It would be silly to pick either Lees or Vince out of form and something similar applies to Alex Hales, who began the season dynamically but has not made more than 24 in a Championship match since April.

One of Bell or Ballance will probably have to be saved and Bell’s long service may make him the beneficiary of the selectors’ largesse.


...and who might come in

Jonny Bairstow

His five hundreds for Yorkshire this summer, not to mention his heroic 83no from 60 balls to save a lost cause in the deciding one-day international against New Zealand, have thrust him into contention again. Not treated well by England, he deserves to add to his 14 caps.

Alex Hales

Those in favour of left-field, modern selection favour Hales and had this been April, when he struck a double hundred, a hundred and a 90, he would have been irresistible. But he has done virtually nothing since. A gamble at any time, he is even harder to pick now.

James Vince

Classy operator who has fallen back after two fertile summers for Hampshire (in the Second Division) and a solid winter for England Lions with a modest record this year (in the First Division). Highly improbable that he can be picked now with a Championship average of 19.

James Taylor

His double hundred for Nottinghamshire this week – his first three-figure score of the season – could hardly have been more timely but doubts remain about his ability at the highest level. Unlikely to add to his two Test caps but if two changes were to be made, now may be the time.

Jack Leaning

Probably too soon for a player in only his second season. But at 21 he has made three hundreds and averages above 60 for champions Yorkshire. His would be the boldest pick of the lot.