England opt for Bopara with focus on future
Vaughan, Bell, Shah and Harmison miss out as fresh names make the Test squad
Under new management, England moved from closed shop to open house yesterday. In picking two debutant seam bowlers and a relative novice to fill the prestigious No 3 batting position they demonstrated a willingness not only to ditch the past but also to insist that performance counts.
Tim Bresnan and Graham Onions were named in a bold squad of 12 for the first Test against West Indies next week, although neither was considered good enough for the 2009 International Performance Squad of 25 players which was picked only three weeks ago. They have been summoned partly because of their early season form, partly because of injuries and team balance, partly because the coach Andy Flower and the captain, Andrew Strauss, are clearly prepared to be flexible. This is the first squad with their stamp on it.
Ravi Bopara will bat at three, preferred to Ian Bell, who has made two hundreds this month, and Michael Vaughan, who was considered by many to have the edge. Bopara deserves this chance but it is a risk because the selectors have rightly selected only five specialist batsmen. In his previous four Tests he has occupied the relative comfort zone of six, from where he scored his maiden Test century against West Indies in Barbados two months ago.
The squad is as much about the personalities whom England have excluded as it is those who have been selected. There is no place for Vaughan, Bell, Owais Shah or Stephen Harmison. For three of them it could spell the end of their international careers although the national selector, Geoff Miller, sweetened the bitter pill of omission.
"Bell has to continue playing like he has been," he said. "It's about technique, ability and character for him. He's said that the next opportunity he gets he's going to make sure he stays in the Test squad. That's what we're looking for.
"Vaughan has played well in pre-season, he's not got the big scores that are necessary but he's still part of the framework. Steve Harmison is one of the few bowlers who can snap it up to over 90mph. We need Steve to be bowling like that. I have rung Owais and had a word and will sit him down when he gets home from the IPL."
The truth is that others are now in possession, which is always nine tenths of sporting law. Vaughan, Harmison and particularly Shah will have to perform wonders to return. There may be sentimental attachment to Vaughan as an Ashes-winning captain but he is 34 and teams have to move forward.
There is a feeling that Harmison has had enough chances. If he could prove the sceptics wrong it would be cause for jubilation because 90mph practitioners who extract bounce remain exceptional. Shah blew his chance in the Caribbean earlier this year. A player of Bell's gifts should return but he may have to wait because Flower will not be easily persuaded he is ready again.
Although Onions and Bresnan have leapfrogged an array of seamers, they have been picked for different reasons. The season may be in its infancy but Onions matured into it more quickly than others. He was extremely impressive in taking eight wickets for Durham against Yorkshire last week.
Bresnan was on parade in that match, when all four days were watched by the selector, James Whittaker. It is possible to infer therefore that he must have spoken enthusiastically about both. Bresnan took three wickets, bowled plenty of overs and acquitted himself well with the bat.
Without Andrew Flintoff, England were doubtless keen not to have a tail that fell away too sharply. Matt Prior has it in him to become a sterling No 6 but Bresnan, who has three first-class centuries, can provide a fillip to the lower middle order.
The attack will be based on accuracy and swing rather than pace. Flower is a fan of Ryan Sidebottom, who made his comeback for Nottinghamshire yesterday, mainly because of the different angles he offers with his left-arm swing. But Bresnan and Onions have been given a wonderful opportunity.
There was a further mild surprise in the selection of two spinners, which is an indication of the way that the new management is thinking. Two spinners in May may seem daft but Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar operated well together in Trinidad last month. Their time as a pair will come.
Bopara has probably benefited from the fact that Flower knows his game from their days together at Essex. There were many occasions on which Flower batted at the other end and saw at close quarters the extent of an outrageous talent. The selectors, as with Onions and Bresnan, have decided that it was time to find out more. The shop is closed no longer.
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