England pick form horses as Strauss dropped

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The Independent Online

The afterglow of England's 2005 Ashes triumph ended for two more players yesterday when the selectors axed a pivotal member of the victorious side and placed another on notice. Injury and illness has continued to deprive England of the services of Andrew Flintoff, Marcus Trescothick, Ashley Giles and Simon Jones but before the announcement of the touring party to Sri Lanka yesterday, Geraint Jones was the only Ashes winner to have been dropped for performances on the field.

Andrew Strauss' omission was widely expected but there was one word in the press release issued by the England and Wales Cricket Board that highlighted how disillusioned and frustrated the selectors have become with their strike bowler, Stephen Harmison. The word is "form" - something that Harmison now needs to show during his two-match fitness test in South Africa if he is to secure a place in the squad.

It was initially believed that the 28-year-old would only have to show he had recovered from the hernia and side injury that prevented him playing during the last month of the season. But the extra little caveat means that Ottis Gibson, England's bowling coach, will be monitoring where Harmison pitches the ball as well as how his body responds during the two first-class four-day matches. Gibson's findings will then be passed on to the selectors.

The demands of the selectors are understandable because Harmison's bowling has been hugely inconsistent for some time. On his day there is no finer or more dangerous fast bowler in the world but, sadly, those days have become rare.

Harmison's apparent casual attitude to training has failed to impress many of those close to the England side. Some believe it was a lack of preparation that caused him to bowl the first ball of last winter's Ashes to second slip. It is not the first time Harmison has been given a timely kick up the backside. Four years ago he was overlooked for a central contract and left England's tour of Bangladesh with a back injury. Harmison then withdrew from the Test tour of Sri Lanka, a move that led to several players questioning his commitment.

The criticism stung him in to action and he trained hard with Newcastle Football Club prior to England's tour of West Indies. In the Caribbean Harmison was magnificent and in the summer of 2004 he was deservedly ranked the best bowler in the world. England are hoping that, after three years of carrot, a bit of stick brings out the best in him.

"He knows that this is a two-prong thing," said David Graveney, the chairman of selectors. "Medically he is only just starting to bowl flat out but we need to see him in a match environment. Stephen has been out for a while and in the past we have received criticism about speculating about players' fitness before tours, which haven't worked out. We need to see what sort of form he is in and at the end of the two four-day games we will make a decision based on his form and fitness. Stephen understands that nets at Loughborough would not be sufficient given the period of time he has been out. The two four-day games will give us a better idea. Hopefully this procedure will help him return to his best form."

Graveney offered encouragement to Strauss who, before yesterday, had not been dropped in his 43-Test career. "Andrew has not performed to the level that he can do over the last 12 months," Graveney said. "He is extremely disappointed, it would be strange if he wasn't. He has had a tough year – not getting the captaincy in Australia, being left out of the one-day squad and now being left out of the Test squad.

"But he is a fighter. He is the sort of bloke who will take it on the chin, dust himself down and come back fighting. He is only 30 and has plenty of time in front of him, that is why we offered him a central contract. We believe he will be coming back in the frame very shortly. The selection of seven batsmen is based upon what we believe the conditions will be."

The presence of four uncapped players – Ravi Bopara, Stuart Broad, Phil Mustard and Graeme Swann – along with Owais Shah gives the squad a fresh feel and it will be fascinating to see how they cope with the challenges that Sri Lanka offers. All five played in the victorious one-day side that has just returned from Sri Lanka and they will return to the island full of confidence and pleasant memories.

Broad and Mustard are likely to act as reserves but Bopara, Shah and Swann all have a good chance of playing. Graveney confirmed that Michael Vaughan will open the batting, leaving Shah and Bopara to compete for the No 6 spot. Swann, it appears, is sure to play, rekindling a spin partnership with Monty Panesar that got no further than the embryonic stage when the pair were at Northamptonshire.

England's bowlers will be crucial but it is the way the batsmen play Muttiah Muralitharan that will be decisive. By the time England play Sri Lanka in the first Test in Kandy Muralitharan may well be the highest Test wicket taker. Nine dismissals in a two-match series in Australia would see him overtake Shane Warne with 708 scalps. If they do not come there an England batsman will have the honour of becoming victim 709.

England (to tour Sri Lanka, December 2007): MP Vaughan (Yorkshire, capt), AN Cook (Essex), IR Bell (Warwickshire), KP Pietersen (Hampshire), PD Collingwood (Durham), OA Shah (Middlesex), MJ Prior (Sussex), GA Swann, RJ Sidebottom (both Nottinghamshire), MJ Hoggard (Yorkshire), MS Panesar (Northamptonshire), JM Anderson (Lancashire), RS Bopara (Essex), SC Broad (Nottinghamshire), P Mustard (Durham).

Five of the Best: The new boys going to Sri Lanka

England's Test squad contains five relatively new players, each of whom featured in the team's one-day series victory in Sri Lanka. The triumph and their performances helped them to gain selection for the three-Test series that starts on 1 December in Kandy.

Ravi Bopara

The Essex all-rounder is not Andrew Flintoff but England are hoping he can help fill the void. Unlike Flintoff, Bopara is primarily a batsman who bowls a bit, but the 22-year-old will be expected to send down a few tidy overs each day as well as bat at six.

Stuart Broad

In the summer the selectors picked Chris Tremlett ahead of Broad but several impressive spells of bowling during the one-day series in Sri Lanka enabled the Nottinghamshire paceman to push ahead of his rival Chris Tremlett. His excellent temperament and ability with the bat helped.

Phil Mustard

Good wicketkeepers go unnoticed and Mustard (below) worked behind the stumps during the one-day series in Sri Lanka without incident. The 25-year-old's batting has huge potential but he needs to be more selective.

Graeme Swann

Two months ago England were wondering where they would find a partner for Monty Panesar but Swann, 28, now looks the part. He bowled beautifully during the one-dayers and scored important runs. He appears to have grown up, too. On his only other England tour – to South Africa in 1999/2000 – he let himself down.

Owais Shah

The Middlesex batsman has played Test cricket before but it is his one-day form that has earned him a place. Shah is an excellent player of spin, as he showed on his Test debut in Mumbai 18 months ago.