England vs India: England's decision to ditch Ravi Bopara was wide of the mark
Struggles of Jordan and Stokes have ruined side’s balance
The question of the sixth bowler is a subject for eternal debate. It is what makes the choosing of a one-day side such a confounded exercise.
Five bowlers should be enough in any decent company but, as England found to their cost on Wednesday, it can never be certain. An off day by one of the quintet and the wheels come off.
Chris Jordan was the one bowling most of the dross in Cardiff, with Ben Stokes not far behind. It left England with nowhere to go and the conundrum of what to do next.
In theory, England’s plan seemed rational. They had dropped Ravi Bopara as their fifth bowler for this Royal London one-day series against India because they felt they needed more genuine penetration in the middle overs of an innings – five front-line bowlers was how they put it.
With England already distracted by the debate on the merits of Alastair Cook as one-day captain, the response was to pick three all-rounders, of varying strengths and different qualities: Jordan, Stokes and Chris Woakes, with Jos Buttler, the wicketkeeper again moving up to No 6. After India made 304 for 6, having been 19 for 2, it would seem to be a strategy in need of urgent revision.
Jordan, in particular, looked a shadow of the bowler who dismantled Sri Lanka at Old Trafford back in May. International cricket has gradually become a struggle for him since then and his confused run-up is leading to other difficulties. He has now bowled 61 wides in his 122 overs in one-day internationals, which works out at 8.33 wides per 100 balls, 2.5 more than anybody else who has played for England.
On that basis alone, it is difficult for the selectors to pick Jordan for the third match, at Trent Bridge on Saturday. It would do him and the team only harm. He has to relocate a radar and a rhythm which have been missing for a while.
The obvious replacement is Steve Finn, as long as he is genuinely back to something like he once was before his own travails began a year ago. Finn, briefly, was one of the most potent one-day bowlers around, with a skilful slower ball. Otherwise the left arm swing of Harry Gurney may offer something a little different.
But that still would not wholly overcome the sixth bowler issue, which has perplexed selectors as much as the identity of the fourth or fifth men in the Cambridge spy ring used to worry governments. England thought they would be a stronger side without Bopara, whom they have ditched after 108 caps.
It seems to have taken them that long to deduce that he is no more than a bits-and-pieces cricketer, though he has probably been their best one-day performer in the past year or so. They seem to believe that Woakes et al can fulfil the function quite as well.
Yet although these are bowlers who bat, England do not have batsmen who bowl. Or, at least, not much. Joe Root is alone in the top order. This is something that other teams around the world often manage to avoid.
Australia, for instance, usually have Shane Watson batting in the top order as well as five other bowlers. At present Mitchell Marsh is filling that role. Still, they used seven bowlers against South Africa this week and still lost by seven wickets.
South Africa have J P Duminy and also a wicketkeeper in Quinton de Kock who opens the batting. To achieve some kind of similar balance, England may have to ensure that Buttler, still an uncertain starter, remains in the top six.
More than three years since he was withdrawn from one-day international cricket, England still miss Paul Collingwood, a man who could bat at six and fill in with as many overs as were required on a given day, from two to 10. Never quite an authentic all-rounder, he knew his own game and his opponents so well that he became indispensable, bits-and-pieces nonpareil.
Cook’s position at the top of the order will doubtless continue to be the subject of argument. But the selectors have made that bed. They have swiftly to resolve the balance elsewhere and may yet need Bopara again in the top five.
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