Fletcher's three nods to future

Cook, Mahmood and Panesar are picks of potential as England keep one eye on Australia
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They will couch it in terms that are diplomatic approaching evasive. They will talk of the job at hand and mean it. They will point to injuries narrowing their options and be justified. But the England selectors will not deny (unless they want to be impeached by the Great Selectorial Ombudsman, a role for which the International Cricket Council might consider Doug Insole, former chairman of selectors, next president of MCC and eminence, magnificently fitted) that their teams this summer are in truth anticipating a day in November.

What they have also done is prompt a heated if nebulous debate on the batting order, the importance of No 8, and the awful fact that they must contemplate life without Simon Jones. Of course, they want to beat Sri Lanka now (looking all too straightforward) and of course they want to beat Pakistan later (much harder) but they also need to compute a formula to retain the Ashes against Australia this winter.

That is why Alastair Cook, Sajid Mahmood and Monty Panesar earned their nod before Ian Bell, Jonathan Lewis and Shaun Udal respectively in the First Test. It was an unsentimental selection based on the future every bit as much as the present, which is not to belittle the contributions of Mahmood and Cook. Duncan Fletcher, the coach and most influential selector, indicated its probability last week when he almost choked on the whole notion of horses for courses.

All three selections were bold and mildly contentious. But Mahmood is 24 and has pace and bounce, Lewis is 30 and does not, Panesar is 24 and bowls slow left arm, Udal is 37 and bowls off-breaks. Jones has another knee injury. If anybody can recover from it he can, but if it needs surgery, it simply may never be resilient enough again for the rigours of international fast bowling. The cold logic will have hit them quickly.

Perhaps it did not take much longer in the case of Cook. From the moment he stepped into the full international arena at Nagpur in February, not long after stepping off a plane, it was pretty clear that he had the wow factor. He had it in a different way from David Gower, or Ian Botham, or Andrew Flintoff, but he had it. It was not so much the shots as the calmness and the precision.

But in going for Cook, the selectors have also made a telling judgement on Bell. In his obliging briefing, Fletcher spoke of the continuity in selection for which these selectors have become noted. Up to a point, Lord Fletcher - oops, sorry, he remains an OBE for the moment.

The coach and his acolytes can be ruthless. In the 85 Test matches since Fletcher assumed charge, 61 different players have been picked, of whom 26 were more or less specialist batsmen. In the 85 before - covering a slightly longer period of time - 73 were picked, of whom only 24 were batsmen. Ten of Fletcher's batsmen have been given fewer than 10 matches (whither Ed Smith, what of Usman Afzaal?), others have drifted from the scene.

True, Bell has been permitted a little more breathing space, having played 11 consecutive Tests. But this is to forget that England were about to jettison him in Pakistan last winter. When he made his debut against West Indies at The Oval in 2004, Bell looked every inch the Test batsman, but his natural diffidence seems too often to have overtaken him.

The spectre of Michael Vaughan hangs over the team. What a dilemma. On the one hand, the team need their captain, on the other they need him to be fully fit before he returns. The longer he is away the less it becomes his team. And when he returns, where does he bat? Should it be three, his last known position, and if so where does that leave Cook? The young man from Essex is not a natural No 5 but he is a quick learner. There might be a case, frequently mentioned, for moving Marcus Trescothick down the order, allowing Cook to open. That assumes that Paul Collingwood is not quite up to it, and he is showing every sign of resisting that assumption. But if it came to it could Cook not provide ballast between Kevin Pietersen and Andrew Flintoff? Similar observations apply to the bowling, but it cannot be healthy that Liam Plunkett, a bowler with a big future who is not ready, has partly gained favour because of his perceived ability to bat at No 8.

It is all to do with the Ashes. And for all the selectorial forethought the team England really have in mind for Brisbane is along the lines of Trescothick, Strauss, Cook, Vaughan, Pietersen, Flintoff, G O Jones, Giles, Hoggard, Harmison, S P Jones/Anderson/Mahmood. Or damn near who won it last time.