Harmison left out as England stick with man in form

Onions in Ashes squad ahead of Durham team-mate who could play role in series

The England selectors held their nerve and kept their powder dry yesterday. The nearest they came to unpredictability in naming a squad of 13 for the first Test of the Ashes series was picking a bowler who took five wickets in an innings on his Test debut two months ago.

Graham Onions was preferred as the extra seamer for the long-awaited match at Cardiff on Wednesday, ahead of his Durham colleague, Stephen Harmison.

It must have been tempting to select Harmison, especially as most of Australia's squad has been talking him up as one of the great fast bowling exponents of all time who would definitely knock their blocks off. But Geoff Miller, the chairman of selectors, and his colleagues resisted these cunning blandishments and went for the man in the form of his life. Onions has taken 40 Championship wickets this season, 10 ahead of the bowler in second place – who happens to be Harmison.

Miller was much more expansive than he has been hitherto this season, perhaps caught up like everybody else in the occasion as the great day dawns. Usually low key in his approach he issued what by his standards to a rallying cry and a prediction: 2-1 to England.

"We are excited about the series," he said. "We know how big the Ashes is and what we have been trying to do over the last two years is to make our selection process as easy as possible when it finally came to picking the team. In the past there have been four- and five-hour meetings trying to jigsaw things together but this one took half an hour, it was very straightforward. We know the kind of people we have, the ones who are knocking on the door."

He touched on the ultimate powerlessness of the selector and why it was such an imperfect science. "The tingle is there, definitely," he said. "As a player you can do something about it, when you are watching all you can do is hope the people you pick play to their potential. But I'm very confident because I know we have players there who if they play as they can play can give Australia a real hard series.

"It will be tough for it to match up to the 2005 series in terms of excitement but I think the result will be the same. If you look at the league table we are three or four places behind them but when it comes to this encounter they will have to play really well to beat us."

There was no place in the squad either for Ryan Sidebottom. England crave the variety that his left-arm swing might bring but he has simply not yet taken enough wickets or produced enough evidence that he will. As expected, Monty Panesar inhabits the second spinners' spot, the leg-spinner Adil Rashid having made no case whatsoever when bowling for England Lions against the Australians at Worcester last week. Ian Bell is the cover batsman and while it was the obvious choice there was absolutely zero competition.

The biggest conundrum now facing the selectors in Cardiff – the coach Andy Flower and the captain Andrew Strauss – is whether to stick with the plan they have had for some months and to play two spinners. It would be the first time in a home Ashes Test since 1993 and it is a momentous cricketing decision. If it rains in Cardiff over the next two or three days – and the bookmakers' odds on this at any time of the year never seem to get longer than evens – they will probably draw back which would be less a failure of nerve than judicious selection. But Miller pointed out that it was one area where England had an advantage.

There seems no doubt that Harmison will have a part to play in the forthcoming skirmishes and Miller, not a man easily disposed to giving away state secrets or any information at all if he can possibly help it, indicated as much. "It is not a sprint, it is a marathon," he said.

"We had a chat with Steve and he understands the situation. But there might be some surface later on in the series that requires the kind of bowler Harmison is. His form at Worcester on a very bland wicket was very, very encouraging."

On the subject of Panesar's left-arm spin, Miller was almost expansive and all the better for it. "Monty has not been performing at his best by his own admission but it is a strange area, spin bowling," he said.

"You can bowl and get nothing and then from nowhere you can get five wickets. Monty is an international quality bowler. By his own admission he has had a problem, he has not been bowling as well as he could but he had gradually started getting better."

Panesar has suffered from having a lack of variety in his bowling but in trying to acquire it he mislaid the stock ball which had served him so well at the start of his Test career. Reports suggest that he has occasionally been a forlorn figure at Northamptonshire this season but his renewed alliance with Mushtaq Ahmed, England's spin bowling coach, will no doubt perk him up.

"In any discussion about Monty you start from what he does best, then you talk about creating the variations in his delivery," said Miller. "His confidence is not there to the extent that it was when he is bowling sides out but it is not far away."

Miller, like everybody else, sounded as if he could hardly wait.

Lucky 13: England squad for the first Test

......... Age.........  Tests.........  Bat.........  Bowl

A Strauss (c)......... 32......... 62......... 43.96......... n/a

A Cook......... 24......... 43......... 45.02......... n/a

R Bopara......... 24......... 6......... 49.62......... 155

K Pietersen.........  29.........  52.........  50.49.........  129.50

P Collingwood.........  33.........  48.........  44.20.........  55.00

M Prior (wkt).........  27.........  18.........  48.40......... n/a

A Flintoff......... 31.........  75.........  31.69......... 32.07

S Broad......... 23.........  17.........  31.35......... 37.95

G Swann......... 30.........  7.........  35.00......... 26.23

J Anderson......... 26.........  37.........  13.60......... 33.91

M Panesar......... 27.........  38.........  5.33......... 33.72

I Bell......... 27.........  46.........  40.59......... 76.00

G Onions......... 26......... 2......... 0.00......... 20.00n

Dates of Ashes Tests

First Test: Cardiff – 8 to 12 July

Second Test: Lord's – 16 to 20 July

Third Test: Edgbaston – 30 July to 3 August

Fourth Test: Headingley – 7 to 11 August

Fifth Test: The Oval – 20 to 24 August

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