Early May but England may turn to two twirlers
Lord's could be too early but Swann and Panesar likely to team up for Ashes
England have chosen boldly for the earliest Test match to be played in this country. In a lean squad of 12 – a declaration of intent and decisiveness – they have included a new No 3 batsman and two new seam bowlers. One of the enduringly alluring games of early summer, or late spring as it has unfortunately become, is to select the team for the opening Test before the selectors get their hands on it.
The trio of Ravi Bopara (four previous Tests, all batting at No 6), Tim Bresnan and Graham Onions (both uncapped) would have been in the teams only of the sort of punter who backed Mon Mome for the Grand National. But that is not the extent of the selectors' adventure and, on Wednesday morning at Lord's against West Indies, the team formally coached by Andy Flower and captained by Andrew Strauss for the first time, may yet take one more audacious step.
It is improbable but the hint of their intentions was there last Wednesday in the dozen names. England have at their disposal two spin bowlers, Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar. In England, in May. The idea that both could make the final XI, and one must, is faintly ridiculous. England simply do not play two spinners unless one of them can also bat properly.
But they may yet do so here partly because the Test pitches at Lord's in the last few years have given scant assistance to anybody, slope or no slope, and partly because there is the suspicion they might just have a strategy in mind for later in the summer.
England have intermittently played two spinners in their team on tour. It happened twice in India and in the final Test of the recent tour in Trinidad when Swann and Panesar showed together that they could not only hold batsmen but create pressure. Flower, who was then in temporary charge, was extremely impressed with how they worked together and you could virtually see his mind looking forward to the summer and assessing Australia's bizarre lack of spinning options.
Geoff Miller, England's national selector, gave little away, as is his wont, but they would not have included two spin bowlers if it was not an option. "There is an opportunity definitely and that is what we want to create," he said. "Of course it depends on conditions and the pitch but it is one of the directions that we want to go in and I know how much Andrew enjoyed captaining with two spinners in Trinidad. It can give you different things."
Miller, an off-spinning all-rounder in the Swann mould, frequently played with a spinning partner in his 34 Tests. But that was then. It is 10 years since England played two spinners in a home Test. Peter Such and Phil Tufnell played in a rain-affected draw at The Oval against New Zealand.
The last time they did so at Lord's was against Australia in June 1993 when Such and Tufnell were also in tandem. To say that it ended in tears is to understate the torrents that flowed from English eyes as Australia made 632 for 4. Tufnell, at least, took two of their wickets but Australia's two spinners did somewhat better, Shane Warne taking eight wickets and Tim May six in the victory by an innings and 62 runs.
The tide has turned decisively against spin in this country since, though there has been an obsessive search for a game-turning wrist spinner. This has missed the point that England have never had game- turning wrist spinners but a series of crack left-armers.
Swann is a smart off-spinner, not Jim Laker and maybe not even John Emburey, the best of recent vintage, but he is smart enough to understand that off spin may be about to have its day again. He has accuracy, he turns the ball, he has decent changes of pace and angle and he has quickly come to appreciate the need to work over after over on a batsman in Test cricket.
Panesar has been a disappointment in many quarters and has had an indifferent three matches for Northamptonshire this season which have yielded just three wickets. After 38 Test matches he has not developed as he should have done.
Part of the problem is that he is learning his craft at international level. He has played only four more Championship matches than he has Tests. Welcome to professional cricket in the 21st Century. But in some ways he is done a disservice. Panesar's shortcomings are plain but he still averages seven runs a wicket fewer than his immediate predecessor as the side's left-arm spinner, Ashes hero Ashley Giles, and he has taken his wickets at a quicker rate than two great English left-arm spinners from another age, Hedley Verity and Derek Underwood.
Whatever the composition of their sensible five-man attack, England need their five batsmen to get enough runs. However flat Lord's is, it will not be as flat as the surfaces in the Caribbean. Bopara at No 3 will have to hit the ground running because while he might have Flower's support, there is a definite feeling that Ian Bell is being rested while he retrieves his form and finds some gumption. But Bopara is the man in possession.
The same may apply to Onions and Bopara, though the urge to have Ryan Sidebottom's left-arm swing is patent. Swann, too, would relish it, not only because they are mates but because of the rough that Sidebottom creates into which he can bowl.
Always learn from history; and if England are looking for encouragement to use two spinners in May they should remember that in May 1905, in Birmingham, they had Wilfred Rhodes (slow left-arm) and Bernard Bosanquet (right-arm leg spin) and beat Australia by 213 runs.
It is a novel squad, it had Flower's (and Strauss's) stamp on it. But whatever is said now, the team at Lord's on Wednesday against West Indies will not be the team that walks out at Cardiff against Australia in July.
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