England ponder Panesar option

Left-armer in the reckoning as Graveney and co cast their net wide for a spinner
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England will announce on Friday the number of non-MBEs they intend to take on the tour of India. The identity of these players, probably four in all, is the most intriguing element of the squads who will play three Tests and seven one-day internationals in 46 days.

It can be safely predicted that all 12 of those who appeared in the New Year's Honours List as a reward for regaining the Ashes will be in the Test party and that 11 of them will be in the one-day group. This equally assumes that all the injured recover, a list almost as long and including the captain, Michael Vaughan OBE, left-arm spinner Ashley Giles MBE and fast bowler Simon Jones MBE.

The prognosis is that Vaughan's knee, Giles' hip and Jones' ankle should all have made sufficient progress. Most doubt probably concerns Giles' hip and although he said last week that he is now walking normally after surgery he will not have a realistic idea of his chances until he has seen his specialist.

The selectors must balance how much they think the side needs Giles in the sub-continent (lots) against the risk of rushing him back with such a huge amount of cricket ahead in the next 12 months.

All roads are leading to Australia and West Indies next winter, where in quick succession England must defend the Ashes and try to win the World Cup. But without solid performances before then success in those will be impossible.

England won the Ashes because they had developed a style that worked in the two years before. They were meticulous in preparation and execution. An element of those qualities was lost in Pakistan.

On reflection, defeat was caused by a combination of a riproaring Pakistan side and England forgetting just how darned difficult it is to win on the sub-continent. Maybe above all, there was the plain fact of the players coming to terms with what they had achieved only weeks before against Australia, realisation probably dawning that no matter what they did on a cricket field again, or in life, nothing could match that.

But winning in India comes pretty close (ask Australia if you doubt it) and the fact that India have taken over from England in second place in the ICC rankings should concentrate minds further. If Giles fails to make it, the biggest weakness and the greatest disgrace in English cricket will be exposed once more.

There is simply not another spinner proficient enough to do well at Test level. It became clear in Pakistan that there was a reason that the off-spinner Shaun Udal had not hitherto played a Test match in his 16-year career: to wit that he was not quite good enough at the highest level.

But if not Udal, who? On the grounds that there are so many honoured cricketers in the party they may as well summon the 50-year-old left-arm spinner Derek Underwood MBE.

Alex Loudon, the doosra bearing Warwickshire all-rounder, was an amenable tourist in Pakistan and towards the end was sent to further his education in India with players from the National Academy. But Loudon is not going to bowl out India. Not yet.

The name that kept being mentioned in Pakistan (partly because you are always a world- beater out of the team) and was given further credence last week by the chairman of selectors, David Graveney, is that of Northamptonshire's 23-year-old left-armer, Monty Panesar.

It is true that Panesar has a classical action, one that, as the coaches say, repeats. He took 46 wickets last summer at 23 against Division Two batsmen, 31 of them on the spin-friendly Northampton pitches. But back in September, this was not thought sufficient even to grant him an Academy berth.

If England are to win it will be because of their splendid seamers. But they desperately crave Jones' reverse swing if only to give the blessed Andrew Flintoff the occasional breather.

The batting picks itself and it is to be hoped that the addition of letters after their names makes it less vulnerable. With men like Kevin Pietersen and Flintoff at five and six, the burden on the quartet before is onerous. Vaughan is not bearing it at present and like certain party political leaders may be in denial. The fact is that his average as captain is 35.80. Compare that with his Australian counterpart, Ricky Ponting, who took over as world number one last week. His average as captain is now 62.36.

Vaughan has to do better in India, as do the batsmen collectively. Otherwise they will lose badly and that will only make retention of the Ashes a few months' hence all the harder. The gongless quartet incidentally may be Alastair Cook, Liam Plunkett, Loudon and, in the absence of other contenders, Udal. If Panesar were to make it, the selectorial procedure would seem as daft as the honours system.