Ashes squad: Five places are left so England's selectors have room for innovation
For the past few days, as Durham deftly annexed a Championship title with a spirit of community that can be neither bottled nor bought, there was a pressing question in the shires: what is the team for Brisbane going to be?
Fascinating though this exercise proved, it was to get ahead of ourselves. Before England determine their XI for the first Test at the Gabba on 21 November in the second Ashes series of the year, they must first conclude the squad from which it will be picked.
The selectors met in conclave yesterday and the white smoke marking the end of their deliberations will rise from Lord's tomorrow at noon. As usual where tours of Australia are concerned it will be high noon for some, low tide for others.
There will be selections not fully expected, which will be inspired or enervating depending on your preferences and possibly where you live (parochialism still thrives in cricket). When they gathered, Geoff Miller and his long-serving panel – most of whom have been together for almost six years – were not completely certain whether the party should contain 16 or 17 players.
The traditional number is 16, seven batsmen, five fast bowlers, two spinners and two wicketkeepers. With the England Performance Squad also in Australia, it is that quantity, though not necessarily quite that balance, which will probably be announced.
Five of the batsmen, four of the fast bowlers, and one each of wicketkeeper and spinner look to be foregone conclusions given the selection panel's mantra. It is easy to imagine them convening, perhaps wearing their own Test caps, liturgically intoning "continuity, continuity, continuity" and indulging in a bout of self-flagellation for departing from this moral pathway by choosing Chris Woakes and Simon Kerrigan in England's most recent Test.
Eleven down and five to go, however, leaves plenty of scope for pragmatism and innovation. The recent one-day series had the effect of suddenly promoting several players, and though the folly of choosing a Test squad based on limited-overs performance should be obvious, some made persuasive cases.
The places for the extra batsmen are probably between Jonny Bairstow, James Taylor, Eoin Morgan and Nick Compton. Bairstow batted at No 6 for most of the Ashes series, Taylor was called up at Old Trafford as cover. This makes them favourites, but not overwhelmingly so.
Taylor averages above 50 in the Championship for Nottinghamshire but has had a quiet time since his 204 not out against Sussex in mid-June.
Bairstow has been in reasonable form for Yorkshire since being overlooked for the last Test and is yet to convince as a Test batsman. Had he gone on to make a hundred, instead of being out for 95, at Lord's late last summer against South Africa, who knows what course he might have followed.
As it happens, he was left out for the next match, in India, and has not been able to reclaim his place firmly since. It may be that the selectors will entrust Bairstow to be the reserve wicketkeeper, though his work in that position has never looked incontrovertible.
Morgan has a placid nature and a confidence in his ability, but he has played a total of four first-class innings for Middlesex this summer with a highest score of 39. It would be a leap of faith and an indictment of the others were he to be picked.
Compton was unlucky to be supplanted by Joe Root at the top of the order. He played a full part in the epic victory over India last winter, scored two Test hundreds in New Zealand and did not do too much wrong except look a little short of the highest class, a state in which most exist.
The seam-bowling cadre is slightly complicated by Tim Bresnan's fitness. He has said he has recovered from a stress fracture of the back, and if the medical team agree he will be in. If not, he may be despatched with the Performance Programme to ensure full rehabilitation.
Boyd Rankin, formerly of Ireland, has overtaken Chris Tremlett as the preferred tall speed merchant with extra bounce. His sterling performances in the one-day series may be bad news for Tremlett and for Graham Onions. But Rankin may be better off with the reserves, with Steve Finn as the tall man and the dependable Onions as the go-to man in an emergency.
The second spinner is a conundrum like no other. Monty Panesar's aberrations have been well chronicled and his form for his temporary county, Essex, nothing to write home about. James Tredwell, admirable cove though he is, has been lined up and climbed into by the Australia batsmen in the ODIs. Kerrigan was bludgeoned at the Oval. Panesar it may have to be.
Nor is the wicketkeeping reserve easy to come by, if not Bairstow. An inspired pick would be Jos Buttler, so far restricted to limited overs but who has been increasingly impressive in both elements of his game. The manner in which he has adapted his batting style showed his readiness to learn quickly.
One more place is available. It should go to another member of the county champions. Ben Stokes is a genuine all-rounder, a left-handed stroke player as a batsman with wheels and reverse swing as a bowler. Now what price him being at No 6 in Brisbane?
Possible England squad
Alastair Cook (c) 28/97/47.85
James Anderson 31/87/30.11
Ian Bell 31/93/46.66
Tim Bresnan 28/21/32.10
Stuart Broad 27/62/30.58
Jos Buttler 23/0
Nick Compton 30/9/31.93
Steven Finn 24/23/29.40
Graham Onions 31/9/29.90
Monty Panesar 31/48/33.78
Kevin Pietersen 33/99/48.38
Matthew Prior* 31/72/42.36
Joe Root 22/11/40.15
Ben Stokes 22/0
Graeme Swann 34/57/28.55
Jonathan Trott 32/48/47.39
*207 catches/13 stumpings
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