England will land in Australia for the Ashes today with the precise composition of their team still up in the air. All 16 players on the flight are in contention for a place in the First Test, which begins in Brisbane in 18 days. It is a sign both of strength and weakness.
The conundrums which will have again invaded the mind of the coach, Duncan Fletcher, during the long flight's semi-sleep, inescapable even in the best seats, concern four areas, all crucial: the wicketkeeper; the spinner; the fifth specialist batsman; and the fourth seamer.
Get it right immediately and England could compete effectively, get it wrong and the urn could have changed hands before Christmas. Fletcher and his captain, Andrew Flintoff, will seek advice from home, but they will make the final decision. That is the way the English do things abroad.
The identity of the wicketkeeper remains contentious. It usually is in England teams. Chris Read is the man in possession, having replaced Geraint Jones for the final two Tests of the summer against Pakistan.
Jones, whose head was regularly called for during his 31 consecutive Tests, now embodies the dictum that you are never a better player than when you are out of the side. Dropped, paradoxically, because of his poor batting form, he did not get runs for Kent until the fag end of the season.
Read did well with the bat against Pakistan and kept tidily. The place was his. But during the recent Champions Trophy in India there grew the feeling that Read was by no means certain of starting the Ashes, partly because he had not been awarded a central contract, partly because of his own form, partly because nobody actually said he was in the side for Australia.
Read made hardly a run in England's three Champions Trophy matches and was out badly on all three occasions. The straightforward stumping oppor-tunity he spurned against West Indies seemed somehow more culpable. His cause was invariably advanced because of his superior glovework, and those who suspected he was not quite as good as was claimed will have chalked that one up.
It may come down to how both perform in the two warm-up matches. Jones, whose keeping has improved (it needed to) has nothing to lose. It may be that his style of batting is more conducive to Australian pitches. Both Fletcher and Flintoff like him as man and cricketer, as someone who cajoles the team. Do not be surprised if the F-men take a controversial decision come the Gabba.
Similarly, the one spinner's place probably available for most of the series may go to the returning veteran Ashley Giles rather than Monty Panesar. Fletcher may have twitched slightly on the flight as he thought about it. It is, mostly, to do with balance. Giles, fit again after hip surgery, can bat at eight, Panesar cannot (though whether Giles can bat at eight in a Test after so long out of the game is another conundrum).
In the justifiable rush to praise Panesar as an attacking spinner (32 wickets in his first 10 Tests, including 19 top-five batsmen), Giles's merits are sometimes forgotten. True, he may be used largely as a defensive, holding bowler but he, too, has exhibited genuine spinner's craft - the dismissal of Damien Martyn at Old Trafford last year being a perfect example - and at Brisbane on England's last tour he took six of the 15 Australian wickets to fall before a broken wrist put him out of the series. Fletcher does not forget such matters.
Three good men and true are available for two batting places. It is difficult to envisage the selectors overlooking Alastair Cook's quietly spectacular entry into international cricket and Ian Bell's rapid advance, which saw him named as the world's best emerging player on Friday.
Paul Collingwood's short backlift and tough composure may not be automatically discarded in the place England find themselves. With all that to consider, the fourth seamer may have to wait. England had a long journey via Hong Kong. Another via Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth, Melbourne and Sydney begins today.Reuse content