England chose expediency ahead of loyalty yesterday. In a decision that wrong-footed almost all observers, if it did not make them look like complete nincompoops, the selectors opted for Eoin Morgan to fill the vacant batting position in the first Test instead of Ravi Bopara.
It demonstrated that their prime motivation must always be to pick the team to win the match and that all other considerations are excluded. Morgan spent the first six weeks of the season playing Twenty20 in the Indian Premier League, where his contract with Kolkata Knight Riders was worth $350,000 (£215,000), while Bopara spurned IPL advances to play four-day Championship cricket as part of his strategy to regain his Test place.
There was another unexpected inclusion in the squad of 12 for the match against Sri Lanka which begins at Cardiff on Thursday. Steve Finn has been named as the fourth seamer, although it had been widely assumed that others had gained favour such as Ajmal Shahzad and the returning Graham Onions.
In both cases, the selectors could say they were merely implementing their usual policy of continuity. Morgan was the reserve batsman throughout the Ashes series last winter, although he did not play a Test.
Finn played the first three matches before being omitted for Tim Bresnan. With Bresnan having suffered a recurrence of a calf injury which will force him to miss the whole of the Sri Lanka series, the selectors decreed that none of the other seamers – and there are plenty pushing at the door – had done enough.
The late, mildly contentious decision to go for Morgan and not Bopara was the real surprise. It seemed that Bopara's two centuries for Essex plus his ability as an adequate seam bowler had won him the spot created by Paul Collingwood's retirement. But Morgan seized the moment in captivating and ultimately irresistible style by making 193 for England Lions against the Sri Lankans. Bopara, contrastingly, made a skittish 17 which betrayed his fragility.
The selectors' minds were swayed. If it was a close call and was indeed the subject of their prolonged deliberations in Derby on Friday it was probably the right one. There was a slight embarrassment attached to it because it remained widely believed that Bopara had done enough.
Indeed, any suggestion that the Lions match was in effect a shoot-out between the pair in a Test trial was deliberately played down by the selectors. But Morgan's exhibition was so compelling that they knew they had to continue their deliberations.
"That innings tilted the balance but he was never completely out of it at any stage," said the chairman of selectors, Geoff Miller. "It was a very, very good innings which was strong technically and mentally, I think it just showed his character."
Where it leaves loyalty to the cause, however, is anyone's guess. Morgan not only decided that the IPL was better for him (and certainly more lucrative) than the County Championship but had also casually confirmed that were he not picked for the first Test against Sri Lanka he would return to play for the Knight Riders.
The selectors insist they are happy enough with Morgan's commitment to England's Test cause but Miller will have a word with him to establish his priorities. Bopara was bitterly disappointed when the news of his omission was broken on Saturday evening. He will feel that his commitment has been discarded, though his decision was probably eased by the fact that staying in England meant he was around for the birth of his first child a month ago.
Bopara, it is said, is still strongly in England's thoughts but unless he goes back to Essex and scores a mountain of runs it is also possible to believe that he will not play another Test.
He responded grittily in the Lions' second innings yesterday but as Miller said: "It's not the end of the world for him but he's got to put in some real consistent performances now." That was a reminder that there are plenty of middle-order batsmen around.
There was some discussion about one other place in the batting order, that occupied by Kevin Pietersen. Although it is only three Test matches since he made a glittering double hundred against Australia, he needs runs more than at any time in his international career.
For the moment Pietersen has mislaid both his prodigious ability and his aura. There is no longer the feeling that a big score is round the corner and despite the selectors' protestations they are clearly concerned. "We know what a quality player he is," Miller said. "It's up to him to actually get some consistent runs for us now. We have given him the opportunity and we back him to do it." It was a vote of confidence but hardly a guarantee of job security.
Pietersen will need big runs either in Cardiff or at Lord's the following week and the sound of Sri Lanka's left-arm spinner, Rangana Herath, warming up in the nets to have a tilt at him can be heard at this distance. His vulnerability to the breed, bizarre though it may seem, has gone beyond weakness to parody. Whatever he says it is beginning to eat at his soul.
Perversely, Pietersen's hold on his place has been strengthened by Bopara's omission. With only four specialist bowlers, England will need a fill-in bowler on the days when their opponents are building long innings – of which Sri Lanka are eminently capable. Pietersen's off-spin and Jonathan Trott's medium pace will both be called on.
Collingwood used to be England's fill-in bowler, though Miller said he had actually bowled little. It is true that he bowled only 30 overs last winter but it is also true that for some of his career England had a five-man attack. "I think he took only three wickets in a long career," said Miller. Actually, it was 17. England have been bold and they are probably right.
England squad for first test v Sri Lanka
Age Tests Runs Batting Ave
AJ Strauss (Middlesex, captain) 34 82 6,084 43.14
AN Cook (Essex) 26 65 5,130 47.50
IJL Trott (Warwickshire) 30 18 1,600 61.53
KP Pietersen (Surrey) 30 71 5,666 48.42
IR Bell (Warwickshire) 29 62 4,192 44.12
EJG Morgan (Middlesex) 24 6 256 32.00
MJ Prior (Sussex, wkt) 29 40 2,148 42.96
Wickets Bowling Ave
SCJ Broad (Nottinghamshire) 24 34 99 35.24
GP Swann (Nottinghamshire) 32 29 128 28.10
CT Tremlett (Surrey) 29 6 30 26.10
JM Anderson (Lancashire) 28 57 212 31.10
ST Finn (Middlesex) 22 11 46 26.23
Test series fixtures
Thursday to Monday First Test (Cardiff, 11.0)
3-7 June Second Test (Lord's, 11.0)
16-20 June Third Test (The Rose Bowl, 11.0).Reuse content