England will field two new players next week as they work frantically to build a team that might regain the Ashes. But the overdue selection of the opening batsman, Adam Lyth, and the elevation of the fast bowler, Mark Wood – both part of the northern powerhouse that is dominating cricket and should delight George Osborne – were easily overlooked.
Even as the selectors, joined for the first time by the new director of cricket, Andrew Strauss, put the finishing touches to their first squad of the summer, the official launch of the series against New Zealand was dominated by one figure.
Kevin Pietersen remains the name on everyone’s lips and it has become increasingly clear that his absence could hamper the search for a new coach to replace the sacked Peter Moores. Asked about Pietersen’s position, Ian Bell said he had a right to feel aggrieved if he had been given assurances by the new ECB chairman, Colin Graves, that he could be recalled by England if he scored runs in the County Championship.
Hours after scoring a triple hundred for Surrey on Monday, Pietersen was told by Strauss and the ECB’s chief executive, Tom Harrison, that he was not part of the plans for this summer.
Bell said: “Kevin is a quality player, probably the best I’ve played with. I don’t know what’s been going on in the meetings. I don’t know what’s been said. It’s no good as players worrying about that.
“Will it harm our chances not to have him this summer? If we think about it and let it come into our dressing room and talk about it, yes it probably might. That’s all we can do as players, focus on what comes next. We haven’t been very good over the last 12 months, that’s the reality. So we have to start putting in performances now.”
If that was what Strauss did not want to hear, he would at least have been relieved that Bell offered him some backing. “There won’t be a quick fix for us now, it will take Andrew Strauss time, I’m sure he’ll have that,” he said. “As a bloke, would I have faith in him and trust him? Yes, I would.”
It is a saga that will not end unless and until England regain the Ashes later this summer. Before then, they must play two Tests against New Zealand, themselves tricky customers.
As Bell hinted, Pietersen could easily stalk the dressing room. The reaction in other parts of the world also suggests that Strauss and the ECB have not earned widespread understanding for their stance.
Strauss recognised that it would not be universally popular but he might not have factored in the prospect that potential coaches might be unwilling to take the job.
There are wide mutterings that he has already been too prescriptive after sacking Moores, confirming Pietersen’s exile, backing Alastair Cook as the Test captain, relieving Bell of the vice-captaincy and installing Joe Root and insisting that Eoin Morgan will be limited-overs captain.
One of the top names on his list for coach, Jason Gillespie, Yorkshire’s coach, may have wanted much more of a free hand. It is also difficult to think that Gillespie would easily back the omission of Pietersen as a prerequisite.
If the mess shows little sign of abating, England have somehow to dust themselves down to take on New Zealand. The squad will meet at Lord’s on Monday for the first match, starting on Thursday, which will be the 100th Test between the sides since the first in 1930.
Yorkshire’s Lyth will definitely play, as he should have done on the tour of the Caribbean, when Jonathan Trott was preferred. Durham’s Wood will almost certainly come in for Chris Jordan, who has never quite yet seemed at home in Test cricket.
If England are serious about developing a team to take on Australia – let alone New Zealand – they must have the courage of their convictions and allow players like Wood, who has raw speed, a chance to demonstrate that he has the right stuff.
England squad: First Test v New Zealand
A N Cook Essex; capt/30/112
A Lyth Yorks 27 0
G S Ballance Yorks/25 /11
I R Bell Warks/33/108
J E Root Yorks/24/25
M M Ali Worcs/27/9
B A Stokes Durham/23/9
J C Buttler Lancs; wk/24/6
C J Jordan Sussex/26/8
S C J Broad Notts/28/77
J M Anderson Lancs/32/102
M A Wood Durham/25/0
First Test 21-25 May, Lord’s
Second Test 29 May-2 June, Headingley
ODI series 9-20 June
Twenty20 23 JuneReuse content