England players on trial for Ashes
Selectors name side to face Kiwis but warn that they must perform better than last winter's 'mess'
England's entirely predictable Test squad was accompanied yesterday by a severe warning about their future performance. Since Geoff Miller assumed the role of chairman of selectors six years ago he has rarely been given to flights of emotion, whether in triumph or disaster, which made his assessment of matters the more persuasive.
Any players who thought they were there for the duration had better buck up their ideas sharpish. Miller did not actually say they were playing for their places against New Zealand in the Test series which begins at Lord's on Thursday but the implication was stark.
The selectors seem to have been as surprised as everybody else – not least the members of the team – by the 0-0 draw in the recent series in New Zealand. Considering the prior expectations it was as bad as a defeat.
After naming 12 players for the first of seven Tests this summer, Miller said: "We played Australia when we lost at Lord's in 2005 and it would have been very easy then to say this is not the right side. If players don't perform for you in a game it doesn't automatically mean you've got to think, 'We've got to bring somebody else in here'. They've got to go and show, well you got us into this mess you get us out of this mess. That's what they did in that Ashes series."
During the winter, there were suggestions that England might rest the odd key player for the first home series of the summer with two Ashes contests, home and away, to follow later in the year. But the result in New Zealand has concentrated minds.
"It keeps your feet on the ground," Miller said. "It makes you realise you can't just go into a game and go through the motions and win the game because, on paper, you are supposedly superior.
"It doesn't work like that. These boys know they have to perform. New Zealand will have taken something from their performance.
"What I must also say, though, is that years ago if we'd got into those situations we'd have probably lost that series. There was some fight and character shown to actually end up drawing, so there was a positive out of it, although I'd have preferred it to be a different kind of positive."
Miller and his fellow selectors have been determined to promote a policy of continual continuity in the England side. Gone are the days when a fresh, often unheralded, face could be relied on at least twice a season, and when half the side were in danger of losing their places from one game to the next.
This is an admirable philosophy in most ways but it removes the tantalising uncertainty from the process. Miller has no intention of reverting to the old days but he was at pains to point out, in his understated way, that the selectors did not have an exhaustive system of player checking and scrutinising for no reason.
"Whoever is selected for whatever it is, they are selected on merit," he said. "It is not as though we are taking a gamble. We don't take gambles any more. They will be ready.
"We will be secure in our mind that if somebody is coming in they can definitely do a job for us in that standard of cricket."
But another consideration for Miller and his band may be who precisely to bring in. England's bowlers were as disappointing as the batsmen in New Zealand but their would-be successors, playing for the Lions in Leicester, hardly enhanced their credentials on Thursday when the opponents were put in.
Not everybody in the brave new world, of course, has quite fulfilled expectations on entering the Test team, suggesting that selection is an art not a science. James Taylor, for instance, was selected for England last summer and promptly dropped because of technical deficiencies.
Although he has worked his socks off to overcome these, he failed for the Lions against New Zealand yesterday soon after the Test squad had been announced with his name absent. The two Lions picked were the Yorkshire pair of Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow, both of whom impressed. Root, unbeaten overnight with his third successive hundred this summer, built assuredly on his innings before rain ended the third day early. Bairstow played with real aplomb after Taylor's failure and the Kiwis will not have liked what they saw.
Miller confirmed that Kevin Pietersen's right-knee injury is gradually improving. He is expected to be fit well before the Ashes begins, and although surgery has not been eliminated Miller appeared relaxed enough about his progress to make it certain that the star batsman will be there at Trent Bridge on 10 July for the first Test against Australia.
Others may be less assured. Miller expects them to start showing what they are made of on Thursday.
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