England's selectors met yesterday to discuss last winter, next winter and more pressingly this summer. They were in conclave for three hours, before emerging with broad agreement on their squad of 13 and their captain for the First Test against Sri Lanka beginning at Lord's on Thursday.
The fact that there was no white smoke when their deliberations ended perhaps suggested that their conclusions do not have the air of permanence. Since they were meeting at Worcester they might have had half an eye on England A who were doing their bit in softening up the tourists with a 10-wicket victory.
But time was - last summer, for instance - when the only reason for convening for so long could have been to decide whether to have another Chardonnay or move on to the cheeky little Pinot Grigio. Then, every cricketer in England who was in with a shout of selection was fit. No longer.
Of the 14 players named in Ashes squads last summer, six are injured and unavailable until who knows when. Four of those are pukka Ashes heroes: the captain Michael Vaughan, Stephen Harmison, Simon Jones and Ashley Giles. Jimmy Anderson and Chris Tremlett would have been serious contenders for a place now.
Thus, the panel of chairman David Graveney, coach Duncan Fletcher and Geoff Miller found themselves with much to ponder. They will have swiftly nominated Andrew Flintoff as captain after the wonderful manner in which he took over from Vaughan in India two months ago, while also noting concerns about the potential long-term effects.
Without remotely giving anything away, Fletcher said later: "You have to sit down and decide what's good for Andrew Flintoff because what's good for him is good for England. Most players find it hard enough just to bat and captain or to bowl and captain. That's why it's a huge discussion. Andrew is very keen to do the job."
The selectors know that they risk backing themselves into a corner. For his own good, they probably think Flintoff should not be a long-term permanent successor, but the longer Vaughan is missing, the less credence that argument will have. Vaughan has set no firm date for his return but it is possible that he will play for Yorkshire in the Championship at Canterbury on Wednesday.
That would make a return for the Second Test possible but since the Third follows immediately it would not necessarily be advisable. Fletcher was adamant that all the injured players must establish their fitness beyond doubt. He conceded that they badly needed Simon Jones who is out for at least another six weeks but players now had "to think long term rather than short term". In that phrase perhaps lay also the key to their thinking for the Lord's Test. The batting places were probably straightforward. The bowling will have exercised the triumvirate. England need to beat Sri Lanka now and Pakistan later in the summer, but pervading their every waking hour this summer will be the campaign to retain the Ashes starting in November. For that reason alone, no chances will be taken with fitness this season, not if it threatens the challenge in Australia.
"It's always the problem," said Fletcher. "You have always got to be careful you don't just look to tomorrow. Go back to our principle of consistency which has served us well and you're looking forward, not just picking a horse for a course. We've always had that policy, give them a chance to see them grow at international level, not just performing on a given day."
Fletcher might have had in mind Jonathan Lewis, the 30-year-old Gloucestershire seamer, who has now taken 19 first-class wickets in two matches this season at under nine runs each and the 37-year-old Hampshire off-spinner Shaun Udal. Fletcher conceded that much of the talking was about the one spinner's place available.
Plumping for the left-arm spin of Monty Panesar means altering the balance of the side elsewhere because of his batting inefficiency. But Fletcher was right in implying that now is the time to do it. Udal, however, could bat at eight and bowl.
Whatever happens, Lewis, who is yet to play a Test, will not be playing for England in Brisbane in November. He is slightly too short of pace to have a durable Test career, but he does enough with it to present the Sri Lankans with problems. Indeed, it is possible to assume that after the Lord's Test he could become the patron saint of the Horses for Courses Association.
Liam Plunkett and Sajid Mahmood may be thoroughbreds who could train on to win a couple of classics. Sajid was withdrawn from the A team to conceal him from the Sri Lankans when injuries struck elsewhere.
Sri Lanka are coping with little at present. Their victory in Derby was rather overwhelmed by defeat yesterday. With Muttiah Muralitharan to come into the side anything is of course possible but they are desperately short of runs.
Tom Moody, their coach, said they needed to get accustomed to the 2006 version of the Duke ball which has an elevated seam. This is an additional burden that their novice openers, Upul Tharanga and Michael Vandoort, could probably do without.
Not too much then if anything should be read into the result. But Lewis beat the bat often, Plunkett showed greater control than in the first innings, Stuart Broad was full of promise. Alastair Cook finished the match with a flourish.
Apart from a Test squad, England will also announce today a list of 12 centrally contracted players and a development squad. The selectors will be looking forward to an easier time.Reuse content