The current England regime has reached a pivotal moment. England’s second Test debacle against South Africa has placed the national selectors under a huge amount of pressure and the 13-man squad they pick for Wednesday’s third Test at Edgbaston will be scrutinised as closely as any in recent times when it is announced this morning. Selecting a team that is capable of reversing the 10-wicket trouncing at Headingley will not be easy, but that is the task facing Geoff Miller, Peter Moores, Ashley Giles and James Whitaker.
Unlike in Leeds, when Darren Pattinson, the Grimsby born Aussie, was controversially picked, the quartet need to get things right because there is much at stake for those in charge of the day to day running of the England cricket team. If the selectors fail to pick the right team, and England lose their main Test series of the summer for a second consecutive year, speculation over the future of Michael Vaughan and Moores will increase considerably.
Back to back series victories over a moderate New Zealand side have given those in charge time but England have to start defeating strong teams like India, South Africa and Sri Lanka if they are to have any hope of achieving their goals of winning next summer’s Ashes and becoming the number one Test side in the world. Since the 2005 Ashes triumph England have had just a solitary series victory against a top side – Pakistan at home in 2006. The Vaughan/Moores partnership is only 15 months old and it is now in danger of losing a third consecutive Test series against a major outfit.
The fallout from Headingley, which required Miller, the chief selector, to travel to Sheffield to talk to Vaughan about his criticism of the selection policy at the second Test, needs to be buried and the selectors have to be clear in their thoughts and follow their beliefs. If they feel Pattinson is the right man they should pick him again, not drop him to gain popularity.
Even so Pattinson is unlikely to feature. Ryan Sidebottom is reported to be making a good recovery from the back injury that kept him out of the Headingley Test. He has been bowling and doing fitness work at Loughborough and Trent Bridge, and is optimistic of being available for selection.
Sidebottom’s return would provide Vaughan with a huge fillip. Captains love having bowlers like him in their side because they offer control, commitment and the ability to take wickets. There must, however, be some long term concerns about Sidebottom’s on-going back complaint. The 30 year-old did not have problems in this particular area before returning to the England side 14 months ago. Sidebottom has bowled faster for England than he ever did for Nottinghamshire and the extra effort it takes may be taking its toll.
The return of Sidebottom for Pattinson resolves an issue for the selectors but there are three others that need to be addressed too. The return of Andrew Flintoff was heralded as a great day for English cricket, and it was because cricket needs figures like him playing at the highest level. They make things happen.
But, in reality, the return of a slightly misfiring prodigal son has created more problems than it has solved. Before Flintoff’s return England’s selection policy was easy. Pick six batsmen, a wicket-keeper, three seamers and a spinner, and get on with it.
Now it is far more complicated. Flintoff gives the team the option of fielding a fifth bowler, a benefit that every side wants providing one of the bowlers, or a wicket-keeper, is capable of batting at six. But it appears Flintoff’s batting can no longer be relied on. It is why Vaughan slipped him down to number seven at Headingley. England also have to be wary of his troublesome left ankle and bowling workload, meaning that it could be deemed as reckless to pick him as part of a four man attack.
The predicament affects all of those players immediately around Flintoff. At Leeds Paul Collingwood was dropped to accommodate him and Tim Ambrose, the wicket-keeper, was asked to bat at six. Ambrose is a capable batsman but he is not a Test number six. Stuart Broad’s excellent batting at number eight further complicates the situation. He appears to have the potential to bat at seven, but his bowling in the series has not been as effective as England would have hoped.
So what do England do with positions six, seven and eight? It depends on what style of cricket they want to play. What is more important – posting big scores or taking wickets?
If England believe they play their best cricket by batting first, posting a total in excess of 400 – something they have achieved only once in 14 Tests - and then putting the opposition under scoreboard pressure then a sixth batsman must play. But should this automatically be Collingwood?
It can hardly be said that Collingwood is in great form this summer. Indeed, in four Tests and two first-class matches for Durham he has scored just 92 runs at an average of 13.14. Alternatives come in the shape of Owais Shah and Ravi Bopara, players that feature prominently in the England one-day side. If form is the guide then Bopara should be selected first. His 911 runs at an average of 65 for Essex are more impressive than Shah’s 654 @ 38 for Middlesex. Despite these figures it is hard to imagine the selectors overlooking Collingwood if they go down this route.
If the sixth batsman is selected Ambrose’s place in the side is more assured. But should the selectors want to play five bowlers – England have to take 20 wickets to win a Test and it has taken them 438 overs to dismiss 23 South African batsmen in the opening two Tests – then the batting of the wicket-keeper, who would be expected to bat at six, is paramount.
The biggest threat to Ambrose comes from Matthew Prior. The glovework of the Sussex keeper was questioned during his time in the Test side but he is in wonderful batting form, scoring 731 runs at 52 in first-class cricket. Essex’s James Foster is competent with both gloves and bat although he only averages 32 this summer. The glovework of Ben Scott, the Middlesex stumper, is as good as any in the country, and he is averaging 56 with the bat. It may be a bit early to call him up but the selectors would be wise to keep an eye on him.
The final area of contention is England’s bowling. If Sidebottom is fit and England opt for a four-man attack he is likely to be joined by James Anderson, Monty Panesar and Flintoff. Broad, it appears, will miss out no matter whether England play a four or five-man attack, probably making way for Stephen Harmison.
Moores post second Test comments suggest that England’s most exciting young cricketer is in need of a rest. "You can't expect the finished article in a 22-year-old because he has to get stronger and fitter,” said Moores. "He will get more skilful, but in most games we are seeing him do something quite exciting.
"I wouldn't say we would be loathe to leave him out but we've got to manage him, like everyone else. We've got to look after him, but also pick the best side for England. With young bowlers we have to be careful to a degree, because people get injured."
Dropping Broad, who tops England’s series batting averages with 160 runs at 80, would be a tough move. But his three wickets in the series have, sadly, cost more, 96 runs each to be precise.
At the moment Broad’s bowling is a bit too similar to that of Flintoff, only not as good. Each is a tall hit the pitch hard type of bowler and at Headingley both were guilty of not making the South African batsmen play enough. Flintoff is England’s fastest and most hostile bowler but he does not win games with the ball, as two five-wicket hauls in 66 Tests highlights.
Broad remains an outstanding prospect but he too needs to get cuter with the ball. In eight Tests he has taken just 19 wickets. It is not a coincidence that bowlers who bowl a greater proportion of balls at the stumps take more wickets. Anderson is inconsistent and can be expensive but he takes almost four wickets a Test.
Harmison must be considered. England have to find a way of unsettling South Africa’s batsmen and no bowler is more capable of achieving this goal than the at times wayward Durham speedster. Harmison is having a wonderful season with Durham, where he has taken 75 wickets at an average of 20 in all forms of cricket. As we have seen in the past his county form is no guarantee when it comes to Test cricket but pivotal moments require brave and clear decision-making.
M.Vaughan (c), A.Cook, A.Strauss, K.Pietersen, I.Bell, P.Collingwood, T.Ambrose, A.Flintoff, S.Broad, R.Sidebottom, J.Anderson, M.Panesar, S.Harmison.