Unless it is an elaborately dangerous double bluff, England yesterday declared their intention to ensnare Australia in a web of spin. They named two slow bowlers in the team to play in a practice match next week and a third for the Ashes training camp that will be held this weekend.
Both Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar will play in the warm-up match against Warwickshire, seven days before the Ashes series begins, and Adil Rashid will join them at a secret location for the camp. It is a bold, daring combination of off-spin, slow left-arm and leg-breaks, a plot to cause Australia's downfall that England have now put out into the open.
England's side is otherwise predictable with Andrew Flintoff returning after knee surgery as part of a three-man seam attack, the other members of which are Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad. There is also a place for Stephen Harmison in the England Lions team which will play the Australians at the same time.
It shows that the selectors are still not sure – and rightly so – that they can live without him. They are still longing for the day when it all comes together for him again and his form for Durham this summer has once more given them cause for optimism.
For another Ashes hero past, however, there is no shock recall and no prospect of one. Michael Vaughan, victorious captain against Australia in 2005, has been told he must a make a mountain of runs for Yorkshire to make any sort of case. He may not think it worth the bother. Ian Bell will lead the Lions next week and he is clearly the next batsman in line.
Barring injury, Swann the off-spinner is certain to be in the XI for the first Test at Cardiff on 8 July and the reputation of the Sophia Gardens pitch this season allied to the tourists' lack of spin options appears to have persuaded the selectors to tread an adventurous path.
It is possible that England are kidding and will pack their side with seamers as the National Selector Geoff Miller suggested. "We have chosen two spinners in our side to face Warwickshire but this does not necessarily mean that we will opt for the same balance in our bowling attack for the first npower Test," he said. "An extra pace bowler still remains an option for our line-up in Cardiff."
But Andy Flower, the coach, and Andrew Strauss, the captain, have let slip enough times how much they like the idea of two spinners in the side because of the control and extra choices it offers. Then again, they might be part of the bluff conspiracy.
England last two played two spinners in the fifth Test against West Indies in Trinidad last March. Swann and Panesar looked effective and at ease together in that match, taking 10 wickets between them. Despite a moderate start to the season with Northants (six wickets in six matches at an average of 86.66) Panesar has for now stayed ahead of the admired Rashid in the pecking order.
Perhaps the selectors realise that he needs encouragement if he is to prosper but at Cardiff in the last round of Championship matches Panesar toiled away for 44 overs for two wickets. The notion that it is a raging turner may be merely part of the plot to fool the Aussies, since in the three Championship matches there this summer only 14 of the 69 wickets have fallen to spin.
The return of Flintoff has doubtless emboldened England to pursue their course. He offers a measure of control that is simply beyond other bowlers and spinners may therefore be at liberty to flourish.
The last year that England played two spinners in an Ashes Test was in 1993 when they did so three times and lost every time. They did so twice in 1989 and lost twice. The most recent occasion on which they played two spinners and won was in Australia in 1986-87 when John Emburey and Phil Edmonds played an important second-innings role in the innings victory.
But however much the selectors' plan pleases the romantics the truth is that nearly a quarter of a century has passed since two England spinners were influential in a whole series, Edmonds and Emburey taking 34 wickets in 1985, and 53 years since Jim Laker and Tony Lock took 61.
Times have long since changed and England must assess rapidly if they have changed back. England have delayed by 24 hours the announcement of their squad for Cardiff until the morning after the Lions match finishes. Miller said: "We are keen to make the match in Worcester a tough one for Australia and plan to give all the players in the Lions team the maximum chance to press their case for selection." Rashid may be pushing at an open selection room door.
Contenders for Cardiff Three Lions vying for Ashes selection
Chosen as the Lions' captain, it is possible that one day he will do the proper job. Bell was dropped with enormous reluctance because his technical gifts are not in doubt. In other areas he suffers and the selectors hope that as a Lion he can find a heart. Do not be surprised if he plays some part in the Ashes.
Every utterance from the England camp emphasises how highly they think of him and they seem prepared to overlook his frequent bad balls, hoping the good ones take wickets. National selector Geoff Miller said: "His inclusion reflects our view that he is maturing all the time and has the potential to develop still further."
So much for James Foster's fine glovework in the World Twenty20. If anything happens to Matt Prior it seems this is where the selectors will go for their next 'keeper. Davies has made two centuries this summer though Foster, sometimes an electrifying presence, has made barely fewer runs at the same average of 43.
England Ashes squad:
*AJ Strauss (capt) (Middlesex), JM Anderson (Lancashire), IR Bell (Warwickshire), RS Bopara (Essex), TT Bresnan (Yorkshire), SCJ Broad (Nottinghamshire), PD Collingwood (Durham), AN Cook (Essex), A Flintoff (Lancashire), G Onions (Durham), MS Panesar (Northamptonshire), KP Pietersen (Hampshire), MJ Prior (Sussex), AU Rashid (Yorkshire), RJ Sidebottom (Nottinghamshire), GP Swann (Nottinghamshire).*England team v Warwickshire at Edgbaston (July 1-3): Strauss (capt), Anderson, Broad, Bopara, Collingwood, Cook, Flintoff, Panesar, Pietersen, Prior, Swann.
*England Lions v Australia at Worcester (July 1-4): Bell (captain) (Warwickshire), Bresnan (Yorkshire), JL Denly (Kent), SM Davies (Worcestershire), SJ Harmison (Durham), SI Mahmood (Lancashire), SC Moore (Worcestershire), EJG Morgan (Middlesex), Onions (Durham), Rashid (Yorkshire), VS Solanki (Worcestershire).Reuse content