England ignore siren calls and refuse to panic

In-form Collingwood forces himself into reckoning but selectors will keep their nerve
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The Independent Online

Neither party has covered itself in glory since the eventually overwhelming defeat in the First npower Test. Too many of the former have been calling for immediate change in the England team, too many of the latter have been failing to disguise their lack of self-belief.

The prevailing feeling, even among those who managed to conclude that England had a genuine chance of regaining the Ashes, was that they had to start well. But history, ancient and modern, was always against them at Lord's. By the end they had subsided, swamped by Australia's two extraordinary bowlers and the entire team's pervasive confidence.

The home side could have done without such an overwhelming reversal, but it was always likely to happen. They spent two years planning for this, have already rewritten the script by the sea change in the batting order and were immediately being urged to do so again.

So the selectors sat down last Monday and had to decide what course to take. On the one hand, responding to the siren calls would have seemed like panic. On the other, if change was being mooted, it would be much better to do it now, rather than after the Second Test. That begins on Thursday at Edgbaston, and if Australia win again the Ashes would be effectively gone once more.

It is a truism that players are always seen to be better when they are out of the side than when they are in it. Hence the persuasive calls last week for the inclusion of Paul Collingwood, the stalwart Durham player.

It is easy to support Collingwood (and this reporter has done so repeatedly over the years). He is a tough competitor, a great fielder, a batsman with an improving method who is in the form of his life, and he can bowl a few overs of worthy seam. He has desire and character in abundance.

But until the week before last he was still considered a fringe player. Suddenly, lose a match and he is the saviour who would allow Andrew Flintoff and Geraint Jones to drop down the order. The case for this is heightened by Collingwood's current form as well as his previous gritty one-day displays.

The obverse of that is what it says to the squad who lost at Lord's. Something along the lines of, "Watch it, son, you're next". The probability is that every player would soon be fearful of their place. Then again, continuity, a mantra of selection policy in the past few years, is always more easily executed when a team are winning.

If Collingwood jumps ahead of Robert Key (never out of form for well over a year) and Ed Joyce (who was being cosied up to a month ago) and were to be included in the Edgbaston squad, he would have to play in the starting team. Were that to happen, it is likely that he would not replace Ashley Giles, who has been daftly disparaged in the past few days, but Matthew Hoggard. This might seem rough justice, but Hoggard has struggled for form all season. He ain't got zing if there ain't no swing.

But the likelihood is that the selectors have stuck with the squad which lost and will regroup after Edgbaston, for the Third Test match that starts two days later at Old Trafford. The brave thing would have been to change the team had England won.

As for Giles, he was soppy in running to the press with his complaints about being criticised by television commentators. Without question, he had a point, and equally without question the press were grateful for his input. On that score, keep it coming, Ash. But he would have been better to have kept quiet. The Aussies will assuredly remind him of it this week.

Other players under apparent pressure are Geraint Jones, the wicketkeeper who dropped two clear-cut chances at Lord's, and Ian Bell. Jones is an intriguing case, a gutsy player with bundles of belief who keeps having dodgy moments. His batting in the first innings was staunch, but his keeping was weak throughout.

In some ways, Jones seems to offer a flaw in England's team planning. It was as if they picked a strategy and then tried to find a player to fit, alighting on the man from Kent. The vision refuses to recede of Jones putting down a catch at The Oval with Australia nine down, needing two to win with the Ashes at stake.

But Jones was not alone in showing frailties. The batting gives most concern. (So did some of the bowling, but at least they dismissed Australia twice.) From that point of view, it was not an auspicious debut as assistant coach, presumably with greater responsibility for the batting, for Matthew Maynard.

But nobody has been helped by a crazy match schedule which might have been assembled by an Australian public relations guru in association with somebody throwing the fixtures up in the air and seeing where they landed. None of the batsmen, least of all the English ones, have had enough meaningful innings between the end of the Bangladesh matches (and that was hardly meaningful) and the beginning of the Ashes.

Forget the risk of starting the series so late, and allowing football to take centre stage. If the series proves to be a humdinger it will capture the imagination, because cricket remains capable of standing on its own feet. The cricketers have been badly let down by the administrators.

But few of the batsmen played Shane Warne with anything approaching assurance, and that allows for Glenn McGrath delivering an unplayable spell. Obviously, the coaches cannot play for the players, but there has to be more discriminatory use of the sweep shot. Until he was suckered by a ball that looked for all the world as if it was going to be a leg spinner, Bell looked as confident as anybody against Warne.

England as a unit are in danger of being suckered by Australia's cocky approach. Australia are an extremely good side, nay a great side, but two bowlers alone have raised them to rarefied heights. All England have to do between now and Thursday is find a way of playing them, which will come from the head as well as the way they use their bats. Otherwise it will be too late.