Return of Jones in attack will allow England to force the pace in India
India is a destination where spinners thrive, but it is the availability of Simon Jones that will give England renewed confidence when they depart for Mumbai on 12 February. The presence of Jones in Pakistan would probably not have changed the result of the series but his aggressive and intelligent fast bowling was sorely missed by England as they failed to control the majestic batting of their hosts.
A bony growth on Jones's right ankle, and the subsequent operation to remove it, forced the Welshman to withdraw from England's pre-Christmas tour but he will be named this morning in the 16-man Test squad for India. The return of the 27-year-old will see England back at full strength and allow Michael Vaughan to employ the no-nonsense tactics which brought his side unprecedented success during 2004, and all but the last seven weeks of 2005.
The game plan of rotating four high-quality pacemen and a spinner proved too much for Australia but benign pitches, and a sublime Indian batting line-up, will make it difficult for England's fast bowlers to bully the opposition.
If these tactics are to bring success on the sub-continent Jones will need to rediscover the form which made him a pivotal figure during the Ashes. This, however, is far from guaranteed. Jones's development as an international bowler has been hampered by injury and it is no coincidence that England began to see the best of him during a period in which he played in 10 out of 11 Test matches.
In an attempt to make up for four months of inactivity Jones will travel to India on 26 January for 10 days of intensive bowling. In Chennai, he will work with Troy Cooley, the England bowling coach, and Dennis Lillee, the Australian Test legend, before returning home on 5 February.
But Jones is not the sort of bowler who will find it easy just to carry on from where he left off. He has a fluid rather than a mechanical bowling action and his pace and control relies on finding a good rhythm. Jones bowled himself into form in 2005 and he may have to do the same in 2006.
Jones is not the only player whose fitness and form will be watched keenly over the coming weeks. Injury forced Vaughan, Ashley Giles and Kevin Pietersen to return home early from Pakistan, and each will need to prove their fitness before being allowed to travel.
Vaughan is confident that he will be fully fit following an operation on his troublesome right knee and Pietersen's rib injury ought to have healed by now.
But the condition of Giles's right hip will need to be monitored closely. Giles returned home from Pakistan in the first week of December and immediately had keyhole surgery on the joint. The normal recovery time for this operation is three months and, with the first Test in Nagpur starting on 1 March, this gives Giles no room for a setback. As England's only noteworthy spinner Giles will be picked for India, but there is a distinct possibility of him not being ready for the first Test.
The predicament leaves the England selectors with plenty to think about. Shaun Udal and Alex Loudon toured Pakistan with Giles and both will be considered for the coming tour. Udal played in all three Tests and had a miserable time, while Loudon's experience went no further than bowling in the nets.
The uncertainty surrounding Giles, along with the possibility of Indian groundsmen producing turning pitches, means that England need to pick three spinners. Despite a lack of success, Udal is likely to be given another chance to impress. He may not have it in him to win a game at this level but England have few alternatives.
The final spinning spot will go to another left armer. The majority of India's batsmen are right-handed and England need at least one slow bowler who is capable of turning the ball away from their broad bats.
The stock of Monty Panesar, Northamptonshire's exciting young spinner, rises by the day but he remains an outside bet to tour. Panesar is one of the best slow bowlers in England but he cannot bat or field and, should Giles be unfit, it is hard to see the selectors throwing him in against the likes of of Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Virender Sehwag and VVS Laxman.
The selectors may well turn to Ian Blackwell, a devil they know. Blackwell is capable of batting at eight and has shown - in limited-over cricket - that he can contain decent players when bowling over the wicket. Selecting Udal and Blackwell is not an adventurous move yet it is acceptable considering the position England are in.
Picking an extra spinner reduces positions for fast bowlers and James Anderson looks set to miss out. Anderson bowled pretty well in the one-day series in Pakistan but Liam Plunkett's impressive displays have moved him ahead of the Lancashire seamer.
With the 2007 World Cup fast approaching it is vital that England begin winning away from home. They will find this tough in India, where they are due to play seven one-dayers after the three-Test series
Darren Gough's desire to return after opting out of Pakistan to appear in Strictly Come Dancing should be ignored. No player, let alone a 35-year-old at the end of his career, can cherry-pick England appearances and selecting him would be a dreadful precedent.
Using Matt Prior as a pinch-hitter in Pakistan and England would be wise to return to their Test openers with Vaughan coming in at three. It would allow the selectors to give the vastly improved Owais Shah another chance to show his class.
* Sri Lanka spinner Muttiah Muralitharan last night hinted he may retire next year. The 33-year-old said the impending birth of his first child and the wear and tear of 14 years of cricket could force his hand.
Probable Test squad (16): M P Vaughan (capt), M E Trescothick, A J Strauss, I R Bell, K P Pietersen, P D Collingwood, A Flintoff, G O Jones (wkt), A F Giles, M J Hoggard, S P Jones, S J Harmison, L E Plunkett, M J Prior, S D Udal, I D Blackwell.
One-day squad (15): M P Vaughan (capt), M E Trescothick, A J Strauss, K P Pietersen, A Flintoff, P D Collingwood, G O Jones (wkt), A F Giles, L E Plunkett, S P Jones, S J Harmison, I D Blackwell, J M Anderson, V S Solanki, O A Shah.
Itinerary: Warm-up matches Mumbai, 18-20 Feb; Baroda 23-25 Feb.
Tests: 1st Nagpur, 1-5 March; 2nd Mohali, 9-13 March; 3rd Mumbai, 18-22 March.
One-day matches: Warm-up match Jaipur, 25 March. 1st ODI Delhi, 28 March; 2nd ODI Faridabad, 31 March; 3rd ODI Goa, 3 April; 4th ODI Cochin, 6 April; 5th ODI Guwahati, 9 April; 6th ODI Jamshedpur, 12 April; 7th ODI Indore, 15 April.
Whose turn is it next? Perm two from four to partner Ashley Giles
Style: Right-arm finger spin.
Test record: Matches: 3; wickets: 3; av: 92.33; runs: 86, av: 21.5.
First-class record: Matches: 244; wickets: 690; av: 32.56; runs: 6,586, av: 23.35.
Strengths: Udal is England's most experienced off-spinning option. He can bat, is committed in the field and fitted into the England set-up well in Pakistan.
Weaknesses: The 36-year-old Udal's bowling is unlikely to improve and, as the figures show, he caused the Pakistan batsmen very few problems on the tour before Christmas.
Chances: Reasonably good. He was the best option in September, so why not now? The pitches in India will turn more than those in Pakistan and England need a spinner who knows what he is doing.
Style: Right-arm finger spin.
Test Record: Yet to play.
First-class record: Matches: 39; wickets: 67, av: 38.22; runs: 1,954, av: 32.56
Strengths: Loudon is the type of multi-dimensional cricketer that Duncan Fletcher wants in his side. He can bat, bowl and is athletic in the field. He has the potential to develop into a good player.
Weaknesses: As a bowler he is still very raw and this could be exposed by India's glittering array of batsmen. How will he react to Sachin Tendulkar coming down the pitch and pumping him back over his head for six in front of an ecstatic 60,000 crowd?
Chances: Outside. Picking Loudon as England's lone off-spinner would be a gamble. But the experienced Udal did not do a lot in Pakistan.
Style: Left-arm finger spin.
Test Record: Yet to play.
First-class record: Matches: 111; wickets: 184, av: 43.25; runs: 6,232, av: 39.19.
Strengths: In 28 one-day internationals Blackwell has offered glimpses of what he is capable of. He is a more gifted all-round cricketer than Ashley Giles. He bowls with good control and flight, and has scored 16 first-class hundreds.
Weaknesses: He has yet to convince the England selectors that he really wants to play at this level. However, his fitness levels are comparatively low and he plays too much soft cricket.
Chances: Good. England want bowlers who can bat and Blackwell is the best of the lot. Why not give him a go?
Style: Left-arm finger spin.
Test Record: Yet to play.
First-class record: Matches: 28; wickets: 107, av: 28.23; runs: 156, av: 7.80.
Strengths: Panesar's first-class record suggests he is the best spinner England have after Ashley Giles. He spins the ball away from right-handed batsmen and is used to bowling on turning pitches, winning several games for his county.
Weaknesses: His batting and fielding are very ordinary and he has no international experience. England do not want their batting line-up to have a long tail.
Chances: Outside. As with Loudon, Panesar's chances rely on the selectors' desire to gamble. They will not take two inexperienced spinners to India but they could take one.
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