England embraced the future by returning to the past yesterday. The selectors recalled four players to the squad for the First Test against Sri Lanka, ignoring the claims of all but one of the young men who graduated from the much-vaunted National Academy in the winter.
In the week that an England football manager picked a World Cup squad containing 12 players of 24 or under, those charged with guiding the fortunes of the England cricket side opted to send for (again) a 39-year-old wicketkeeper, Alec Stewart, as well as a batsman, John Crawley, and a bowler, Dominic Cork, who will both be 31 this year.
Their sole concession to youthful recall was Alex Tudor, who is indeed only 24, is making his third or fourth comeback and probably will not make the eventual XI at Lord's on Thursday. It makes a nonsense of the National Academy's supposed status as the main future supplier of England's teams, and it is only surprising that they they did not summon Phillip DeFreitas, who has also had a cracking start to the season and is only 36.
Rodney Marsh, who was signed as director of the Academy amid much hoo-hah and has spent the winter grooming the next generation, might be wondering if the England and Wales Cricket Board were staging an elaborate prank. Fooled you, Rod.
Nobody would suggest that 30, 36, 39 or 48 (for those wanting to evoke memories of Wilfred Rhodes's dream recall to help England regain the Ashes in 1926) is too old to be playing at the top level. Good cases can indeed be made for the form and ability of all the players on whom the selectors have bestowed their favours – and the chairman, David Graveney, tried to do so.
There were obvious vacancies in the squad for a wicketkeeper after James Foster broke an arm last weekend, for a batsman to replace Mark Ramprakash, who must have known the game was up when he failed to land a central contract, and for at least one extra seam bowler, given Darren Gough's knee injury.
"Foster was the contracted wicketkeeper and would have been selected but for his injury," said Graveney. "Now that Alec is available again, we see him as the leading candidate for the job in James's absence. He is in good form this season, he understands the position with James and is determined to prove to the selectors that he has an international future.
"We had a lengthy discussion about the choice of an extra batsman and looked at Ian Bell, David Fulton and Robert Key as well as John Crawley. Ian has matured a a lot as a cricketer over the winter, but we feel that he hasn't always played on the best possible wickets so far this summer and therefore hasn't been able to spend a lot of time in the middle. Crawley has been in outstanding form. He also made a hundred against Sri Lanka when they were last here.
"We feel that Cork's bowling suits the particular requirements of Lord's. He has been in good form, is fit and his action is back to where it was three years ago."
All of that undoubtedly made for a kind of logic. What it failed to recognise is that the selectors' remit must extend far beyond picking a team for the present. Sooner or later, England have to blood new players and while, in the parlance, there are no easy Test matches any more, they are about to face a Sri Lankan side struggling like billio to adapt to alien conditions without their best bowler, Muttiah Muralitharan, who is in Australia with his left arm still in a sling.
There is also the need, nay obligation, to excite the public imagination. On hearing yesterday's team, the public imagination was probably numbed, and any bit of it still alive was concentrating on Sven Goran's boys.
Ticket sales for the first day are barely above 8,000, which is a pity, because Sri Lanka are a captivating side despite having to perform in the cold of an early-English summer. Walk-up entrance is, thankfully, being allowed, but it is difficult to see many people parting with £20 to see this England, whether winning or otherwise.
There is no comfortable time for an international debut, but there are rather tougher assignments. Let us suppose that Stewart, Crawley and Cork have boundless success in this match and for the rest of the summer. Good luck to them. What then happens if they were to fail when the going gets rougher? Call up the new kids on the block into a cauldron somewhat more seething than it might have been?
Stewart is clearly a better wicketkeeper than the other candidates, including Foster. So he should be, after keeping in 64 Tests. His desire remains intact, as he declared yesterday in stating: "I never thought for a second it was all over. I've still got goals, another Ashes series and the World Cup." It might have sent shivers down selectorial spines.
But Stewart, who chose to miss last winter's tour, is not going to make the difference between England winning or losing the Ashes or the World Cup. The selectors will be reluctant to admit it, but they might have got it wrong with Foster – certainly in the short-to-medium term – and they have spurned a chance to get it right with the 20-year-old Glamorgan keeper, Mark Wallace, or the harshly overlooked Chris Read of Notts, who is still only 23.
Crawley is an abundantly attractive and competent batsman who has scored three Test hundreds and after 29 matches has an average of 31. A point in the selectors' favour on this is that Bell has indeed yet to find form this season, and it is better to pick a player with runs behind him. At least Bell was given a call yesterday morning, and feels the selectors are looking after him. "I am a little bit disappointed but it wasn't a massive surprise," he said.
As for Cork, he has indeed been in swinging mood, with 23 Championship wickets at 14.6. It appears not to matter a jot that they have been taken in the Second Division. What of the young academy speedsters, Simon Jones and Steve Harmison?
England might very well win the First Test with this squad, but yesterday morning it became more difficult to care.
N Hussain (Essex, capt) Age 34, Caps 68
M E Trescothick (Somerset) 26, 22
M A Butcher (Surrey) 29, 38
M P Vaughan (Yorkshire) 27, 16
G P Thorpe (Surrey) 32, 73
J P Crawley (Hampshire) 30, 29
A J Stewart (Surrey, wkt) 39, 115
A Flintoff (Lancashire) 24, 15
D G Cork (Derbyshire) 30, 31
A F Giles (Warwickshire) 29, 13
A J Tudor (Surrey) 24, 5
A R Caddick (Somerset) 33, 53
M J Hoggard (Yorkshire) 25, 8Reuse content