Guessing game over England's Ashes line-up
Sunday 21 June 2009
The team with which England intend to regain the Ashes will be unveiled tomorrow. Or not. On the one hand it is probable that when the squad is announced to play Warwickshire in the week before the Ashes it will bear a striking resemblance to that which will be paraded at Cardiff for the First Test. Otherwise, there would seem to be no point to the fixture. That may imply playing both Kevin Pietersen and Andrew Flintoff.
On the other hand, England may not wish to show theirs too early. In the short time that Andrew Strauss and Andy Flower have been in charge of England's affairs they have developed a marked reluctance to reveal what their XI for any particular match might be. Strauss has occasionally conveyed the impression that if he did not have to hand over at the toss the sheet containing the names of the chosen combination then he would rather not.
England are announcing a multitude of names tomorrow, since they have arranged two matches. England are playing Warwickshire at Edgbaston in a three-day fixture, which is nominally a sound idea. It gives the players a chance to regroup once more, perhaps to experiment, to find form in the middle. Maybe they should have declared that they would play behind closed doors.
On the same day, England Lions will start a four-day match against Australia. This means that the selectors must name at least 22 players, many of whom will have to miss county engagements. Whatever they do, they are obligated to pick a Lions team with depth, partly to give the tourists a tough work-out and not a walk in the park before the serious business starts, and partly because if the Lions are worth having, every attempt should be made to give them a roar. Places in national teams should never be given away lightly.
The likelihood is that England may select a large squad for a kind of Ashes camp to be held in the few days before the Edgbaston game. A few of those players would then be seconded by the Lions at Worcester.
Indications from Flower suggest that the camp may contain 15 or 16 players, all of whom may be expected to play some part in the Ashes. In 2005, England used only 12 players in winning the series but that is unusual. In 2006-07 they used 14. Next week's camp – without, heaven forfend, establishing a closed shop – will be the squad for the summer, like taking a squad on tour. By now, Strauss and Flower will know the side they want to start the series and will have discussed this with the selectors. The selectors, of course, may have other ideas and they are entitled to them. Coaches and captains are paid to coach and captain, anything else is a bonus.
The batting order would seem to be guaranteed. It is impossible that England will look beyond Ravi Bopara as their No 3 having scored three consecutive Test hundreds. Similarly, Matt Prior will come in at No 6, though the wicketkeeping debate is certain to continue after James Foster's impeccable form behind the stumps in the World Twenty20.
If the strategy is to have the keeper at No 6, it will be extremely difficult to change it during the series and as Prior is the only keeper in the country at present capable of batting so high in a Test his place is probably assured. It would be hugely helpful to all concerned, however, if he was at the top of his game with the gloves. Otherwise, the old argument about how many centuries are needed to compensate for dropped catches will begin anew.
England have dropped opaque hints that they might consider playing two spinners in their five-man bowling attack. To do so they would need Flintoff and the signs are that he is coming to fitness and form in the nick of time. The seventh cavalry could not have done it better.
The two spinners would probably be Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar, though Panesar's form for Northamptonshire has been moderate and Flower has not concealed his liking for Adil Rashid's leg spin. Rashid against Australia would be a huge gamble. James Anderson will lead the attack and tomorrow it may or may not be possible to work out who he will lead.
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