By Stephen Brenkley
The chairman of selectors did not and could not say so, but the feeling was unmistakable. England have discharged their considerable debt to the 2005 Ashes winners. It is time togo forward.
This much at least was evident from the 15 names announced on Friday morning for the Test tour of Sri Lanka that begins next month. By dropping Andrew Strauss and putting Stephen Harmison on notice, David Graveney and his panel were not only dealing with the imminent challenge but they were also beginning – at last – the unenviable task of building a team to beat Australia in 2009. They were also making a nonsense of the central contracts which both men were awarded barely a month ago.
In the party of 15, there are five definite survivors from the 12 players who regained the great prize two summers ago. All are indubitably there on merit, but none can now be certain that he can continue to tug at selectorial heartstrings on the strength of that achievement.
Of the remaining magnificent seven, Marcus Trescothick, is back with Somerset still coming to terms with his stress-related condition, Simon Jones has just joined Worcestershire and continues to fight injury, Ashley Giles has retired having failed to do so, Andrew Flintoff is in post-operative rehabilitation again and Geraint Jones had already been dropped because of his dreadful form.
That leaves Strauss, omitted after a dismal year, and Harmison, who has one last chance to restore his place by playing two games for Highveld Lions in Johannesburg, where he must prove that he has regained both form and fitness.
These were tough calls by the selectors, but it is what they are paid for. They will be paid considerably more when the England and Wales Cricket Board finally deign to reappoint Graveney and his fellow selector Geoff Miller in the wake of the Schofield Report. Both men have had to continue picking teams (and Graveney has had to announce and defend them in public) while being uncertain of their futures. They still are. The post of chairman of selectors, which Graveney has held for 10 years, has an almost mythical status in English sport, and by their continued if well-intendedprevarication the ECB are treating it contemptuously.
Graveney and his panel have at least been bold in one respect, if timid in another. Strauss must be hurt and disappointed. A year ago he was wrongly overlooked for the captaincy of the side who set out to defend the Ashes.
Who knows what might have happened had he been chosen instead of Flintoff? Revelations about Flintoff's tenure in Australia are due any day in the memoirs of the erstwhile coach Duncan Fletcher, who has not bothered apparently to observe such a trifling matter as collective responsibility. Had Strauss been captain, things might have been much different now. As it is, his form has gone south quicker and further than Amundsen. He was subsequently left out of the one-day squad and now this. Strauss's Test career began with 112 and 83, and if any player has discovered cricket's tendency to bite back it is he.
If he is unlucky, it is possible to conclude that Harmison is fortunate. For most of the past year, when he has not been grotesquely out of form he has usually been injured. Meantime, England found a bowling unit that looked as though it would hunt batsmen as a pack.
The selectors would have been well within their rights to drop Harmison. As it is, they have clung to the memory of the man at his devastating peak and given him two games in South Africa to demonstrate that he can return there.
Nobody was divulging the secrets of the selectors' detailed discussions, but it is as if they decided that fortune favours the brave before remembering that the meek shall inherit the earth. Otherwise, they would have dropped Strauss, asked captain Michael Vaughan to open and turned again to Mark Ramprakash. Graveney insisted that Ramprakash had been discussed. Indeed, he said that apart from the batsmen picked in the Test party only two others were mentioned – Ramprakash and Strauss – which might say something about the present paucity ofhigh-class English performers.
By considering Ramprakash, the selectors like to think that this confirms that county form counts for something. Ramprakash, however, has had a first-class average of more than 100 in each of the past two seasons. It is probably the most persuasive case ever put by any player being asked to prove something, yet it was not enough.
The selectors might have looked at the starting line-up they wished to field against Sri Lanka and decided he could not be squeezed in. This will allow Ian Bell to bat at three and Owais Shah to come in at six.
Vaughan agreed immediatelyto return to opening. Although he has made no secret lately of his preference for batting at three it was as an opener that he had his most golden periods for England (his average as an opener is 49.20, at three it is 44.79).
It is poppycock to suggest – as it has been – that opening the batting makes it harder to captain. What will make it harder is the fact that he has been out of the side while Paul Collingwood has been leading theone-day side to victory.
Squad: M P Vaughan, A N Cook, I R Bell, K P Pietersen, P D Collingwood, O A Shah, M J Prior, G P Swann, R J Sidebottom, M J Hoggard, M S Panesar, J M Anderson, R S Bopara, S C J Broad, P Mustard.Reuse content