England could turn to Bopara and Khan
Depleted tourists may turn to new recruits in bid to keep series hopes alive
Thursday 26 February 2009
There comes a point in the affairs of man when it is necessary to be bold. For England that moment may have been reached. This does not mean recklessness or throwing caution to the wind – it is about assessing the risk, weighing the balance, and then concluding that desperate times require desperate measures.
In essence, it indicates that the tourists may select for the fourth Test against the West Indies today two players who were neither part of their squad nor in their plans until five days ago and had to travel a total of 21,000 miles spanning multiple time zones and airports to arrive. It is too much to suggest that Ravi Bopara and Amjad Khan have come flying to the rescue of a beleaguered squad but England are aware that they have to do something, anything to salvage their tour.
At 1-0 down in a series which they started as overwhelming favourites, England are running out of matches as quickly as inspiration. There are two to play and the equation is obvious. The crucial nature of the selection has been aggravated by two absences, Andrew Flintoff with a hip injury and Matthew Prior on paternity leave.
It has affected the balance of the side but it may also have concentrated minds. Nothing is certain but the probability is that England will take their first risk by going into the match with only four specialist bowlers.
For a team that failed so narrowly in Antigua because it could not, in the end, take 20 wickets, this is substantial but it seems to be their chosen course. Otherwise the batting, as the captain Andrew Strauss averred yesterday, would be too exposed.
That means six batsmen and Bopara is likely to be preferred to Ian Bell, who was dropped only two matches ago. England must be as sure as they can be that their bowling quartet is fit and in form. A combination of those two attributes may open the door for Khan, a Dane who has played for Kent for six years.
Less than two weeks ago, the pair flew out to New Zealand with the England Lions squad. Two days after completing that journey, and with their body clocks still readjusting, they were summoned as cover for Flintoff and had to fly from Christchurch to Auckland, to Los Angeles, to Miami and then to Bridgetown. They played in the two-day warm up match last weekend and although it was almost meaningless they could hardly have done more with Bopara scoring a century and Khan taking 5-79.
Strauss, playing the cat-and-mouse, reading-between-the-lines game that is customary before Test matches, said: "They're definitely in the frame for selection and we're quite excited by having them in the squad. They both give us different options: Ravi with his ability to bowl a few overs as well as his obvious class with the bat and Amjad who looks like a very promising bowler when it reverses and who was getting it through at good pace."
The gamble is evident: Bopara played three Tests in Sri Lanka 15 months ago and finished with a pair; Khan, who missed the whole of 2007 and much of 2008 with a cruciate ligament injury, is uncapped.
Stephen Harmison's place is most under threat, though England may yet decide that the pitch will be fast and bouncy and give him one more chance. Harmison and many of England's other bowlers seem to have adopted a policy of not taking wickets unless they can possibly avoid it.
Too much can be made about the balance of teams but in this case it is important. England have to believe they can overcome Flintoff's loss. So they can. Since Flintoff's finest hour in the Ashes of 2005 England have played 42 Test matches, discounting the 10-ball debacle in Antigua, of which Flintoff has missed half and played half. With him they have won three and lost 13, without him they have won 10 and lost three. The quality of the opposition has had something to do with the stark difference in those figures but it is still a remarkable statistic. As for Flintoff himself, he has neither scored a hundred nor taken five wickets in an innings in that time.
It was once said, wrongly as it happened, of the great Fred Astaire at an early audition: "Can't act, can't sing, can dance a little." It would be similarly misguided to suggest of Flintoff: "Can't bat, can't bowl, can catch a little," but England will not be entirely disheartened by the recent record.
Strauss said: "If you rest all your hopes on one man the rest of the team don't take the responsibility they need to take. It's a case of three seamers standing up and doing the job rather than four and sometimes you can get more out of bowlers that way. They get used to relying on Fred both as an attacking and defensive option which is a great luxury to have."
The overriding consideration now has to be the taking of 20 wickets. "There is more than one way to skin a cat," said Strauss. He said the bowlers should not be criticised too much because they had played on a succession of flat wickets this winter. "But clearly if you want to win games consistently you need to find ways of doing that more often than not."
West Indies are likely to be unchanged and confident though their captain Chris Gayle conceded that the huge English support may be a factor. "It will be like playing at Lord's. We're at home but they will feel like they're at home as well." The feeling is that England will need all the help they can get.
Fourth Test facts: Pitch, precipitation and players
Pitch report Expected to be fast and bouncy, though these things can be relative. Lushness of square may not help reverse swing.
Forecast Seems certain to be mixed with plenty of breaks for showers.
Possible team: Strauss (captain), Cook, Shah, Pietersen, Collingwood, Bopara, Ambrose, Broad, Swann, Anderson, Khan.
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