England's summer test: How to rebuild the team after Ashes humiliation, Graeme Swann's retirement, Jonathan Trott's burnout and Kevin Pietersen's shock sacking
Sunday 06 April 2014
After England's calamitous winter – for the men, at any rate – County Championship cricket returns today with its participants under a level of scrutiny unparalleled recently.
Following the sacking of Kevin Pietersen, the retirement of Graeme Swann, Jonathan Trott's burn-out and a collective loss of form, the make-up of the next England Test line-up has seldom been so uncertain.
Only four names – Alastair Cook, Ian Bell, James Anderson and Stuart Broad – can be regarded with any confidence as safe from the overhaul certain to take place once a new coach is installed.
That leaves 11 of the squad that left for Australia in October looking over their shoulders at a clutch of contenders, with the luxury of time off traditionally enjoyed by contracted players at this time of year likely to be granted only to those, such as Joe Root and Ben Stokes, who are actually injured.
England have not played a Test since January's three-day defeat in Sydney completed the Ashes humiliation, and will not play another until they meet Sri Lanka at Lord's on June 12.
By then, national selector James Whitaker and his colleagues will have had 10 rounds of Championship cricket and the opening exchanges in the new Friday night NatWest T20 Blast, which starts on May 16, in which to look for worthy candidates.
The questions they will be seeking to answer are these:
Who opens with captain Cook?
The incumbent is Michael Carberry, but the Hampshire left-hander did not make a compelling case for himself in Australia and has done himself no favours with some outspoken comments after his non-selection for the one-day and T20 teams.
Root opened with Cook last summer but the was dropped down the order in Australia. The selectors will be looking closely at Warwickshire opener Varun Chopra and Sam Robson, the Australian-born Middlesex opener who declared his allegiance to England last September and shone with the Lions in Sri Lanka.
No 3: If not Trott, who?
After his mental disintegration, some doubted Trott would play for England again but after insisting his "stress-related illness" was merely burn-out, early-season runs will put him right back in the frame. Should he struggle, Bell may well be asked to move up from No 5. Somerset's Nick Compton still harbours hopes of a recall, but he will need to begin the season strongly.
No 4: Who can be the new KP?
Having decided not to seek an Indian Premier League contract for the first time in five years, Middlesex's Eoin Morgan has made it clear he wants to fill the vacancy left by Pietersen's demise, although he has not played Tests – in which his 30.43 average compares with 40.09 in one-day internationals – since February 2012.
If he makes substantial Championship runs he will reinforce his case, but there is strong competition from Nottinghamshire's James Taylor, who was probably called up too early for his Test debut in 2012 but has done everything asked of him, scoring well in county cricket and for England Lions.
No 5: If Bell moves up the order to bat at three, who goes in at five?
Taylor could equally be an option to bat at five, as would the Yorkshire left-hander Gary Ballance, whose selection for the Ashes tour, on which he made his Test debut in Sydney, followed five first-class hundreds last summer. There will be support, too, for James Vince, the 22-year-old Hampshire batsman noted for his classical technique.
All-rounder: If Stokes is not fit, who takes the slot?
Ben Stokes looked to have nailed the No 6 position until he broke his wrist punching a dressing-room locker during the World T20. Warwickshire's Chris Woakes and Somerset's Craig Overton, whose twin Jamie is also on England's radar, will be trying to get themselves noticed.
Wicketkeeper: Can anyone stop Prior reclaiming the spot?
Matt Prior is adamant that the dip in form that saw him dropped in Australia need not end his England career. Jonny Bairstow is under pressure to prove his worth both as a batsman and wicketkeeper, and Jos Buttler's move from Somerset to Lancashire, to escape the shadow of his rival Craig Kieswetter, will only be of benefit.
In a spin: Is there anyone who can replace Swann?
So far, there is no compelling candidate. Monty Panesar's form is not as reliable as it once was and his off-field behaviour seems to have further undermined his standing.
Simon Kerrigan, the Lancashire left-armer, has many supporters despite his nightmare Test debut, while Yorkshire's Azeem Rafiq and Kent's Adam Riley are two young off-spinners worthy of close attention.
The jury is out on Scott Borthwick, the Durham leg-spinner who made his Test debut in Australia, and Moeen Ali's ability as a serviceable off-spinner and classy left-handed bat can only work in his favour.
Need for speed: Who's in fast lane?
As things stand, England need only a third seamer, although Anderson is not in the first flush of youth and Broad's knees are a concern. Steven Finn probably needs to bowl many overs in county cricket to come back into consideration, which leaves an opportunity for the likes of Warwickshire's Keith Barker and Nottinghamshire's Harry Gurney, two very useful left-armers, for the magnificently consistent Graham Onions and Chris Jordan, of Sussex, who has pace, sharpness in the field and can hit the ball hard and straight.
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