England resist temptation to rush Harmison return
"Do the same again but hold on to those ****** catches" was the message sent to the England team yesterday as the selectors announced their 12-man squad for the second Test against Sri Lanka. The 11 who played at Lord's have retained their places and they will be joined by Gloucestershire's Jon Lewis. Ian Bell, who was named in England's 13-man squad for the first Test has been overlooked and he will attempt to impress the selectors playing for Warwickshire this week.
The selectors have resisted the temptation to recall Stephen Harmison despite England's failure to dismiss Sri Lanka for a second time at Lord's. Harmison appears to have recovered from the shin injury that forced him to return home early from the winter tour of India, although the fact he did not bowl on the final day of Durham's championship match against Nottinghamshire suggests he is not yet fully fit.
"We monitored events at Trent Bridge very closely and felt that Stephen needs more miles in his legs," said David Graveney, the chairman of selectors. "England are obviously a better team when he is in it, but we have to be sure that we do not force nature. Although Stephen is fit, it is questionable that he is match-fit. The selectors have made the decision that it is prudent for him to play a little bit more cricket for Durham and we will monitor that."
Durham play Sussex in a championship match that starts on Tuesday where it is hoped he will bowl more than the 15 overs he sent down in the last game. Should Harmison come through the Sussex match without setback there is every chance he will be added to the England squad for the third Test, which starts in Nottingham four days after the second Test is scheduled to finish.
The only decision England will have to make before the toss on Thursday morning is whether to pick Sajid Mahmood or Jon Lewis for Edgbaston. But what, many will ask, about Liam Plunkett, who only took one wicket at Lord's while Mahmood took five. True. But Duncan Fletcher, the England coach, will want to play a No 8 who can score runs, and Plunkett's potential with the bat is far greater than that of Lewis or Mahmood.
Who Fletcher selects will highlight England's priorities. At Lord's England had an eye on the Ashes when they opted to play Mahmood and Plunkett ahead of Lewis. The pair were rightly viewed as bowlers with the potential to unsettle Australia's batsmen in six months' time.
But, having drawn the first Test, England now have to balance the desire to retain the Ashes against the need to beat Sri Lanka. England have won only one of their last eight Test matches. They want to have players with Test experience in reserve when they travel to Australia in November, but they also want a team high in confidence after series wins over Sri Lanka and Pakistan.
Picking Lewis at Edgbaston would increase England's chances. The pitch there often has something in it for an accurate seamer and it is hard to believe that will not be the case following this week's inclement weather. Lewis made his first-class debut at the venue in 1995 and took 4 for 64, and in six matches at the ground he has taken 20 wickets at an average of 22.
Graveney played down suggestions that Michael Vaughan's chronic knee condition will prevent him from playing again. "I'm confident he will be part of our plans in the foreseeable future," he said. "Michael is a crucial part of our team and I haven't had any information to suggest anything dramatic has happened. I've seen him batting in the nets so things are going in the right direction. It's probably taking longer than people wanted, but as with Stephen Harmison and Ashley Giles, and with the bigger picture in mind, it is better to show caution."
The one thing that is certain is that the chances of Vaughan, Harmison, Giles and Simon Jones being in top form for Australia diminish with every game they miss. Fletcher is right to worry about England's hectic schedule, and the effect it will have on key players like Andrew Flintoff, Matthew Hoggard, Marcus Trescothick, Andrew Strauss and Kevin Pietersen. But he will also be aware that it will take those injured some time to regain the form that allowed England to regain the Ashes.
England squad: A Flintoff (c), M E Trescothick, A J Strauss, A N Cook, K P Pietersen, P D Collingwood, G O Jones, L E Plunkett, M J Hoggard, S I Mahmood, M S Panesar, J Lewis.
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