England are likely to take continuity in selection to its ultimate level today. Their squad of 16 players for the three Tests that they will play against Pakistan in the United Arab Emirates early next year may include 15 of those who comprised the Ashes party a year ago.
If they were to summon Paul Collingwood from Test retirement (improbable) they could replicate the cadre exactly. As it is, their apparently preferred options will reflect both England's success and how hard it is to break into a winning unit.
Geoff Miller, the chairman of selectors, was habitually coy about his panel's deliberations yesterday. "We will base it on what the side is likely to need to win Test matches out there, based on the five elements – batting, fast bowling, spin bowling, wicketkeeping and fielding," he said.
The only change from the original squad picked to visit Australia last year – and which performed so resoundingly – may well be the replacement of Collingwood by Ravi Bopara. It is possible that Bopara may miss out if one of the young turks being blooded in the England Lions side, effectively the second team, is deemed to have done enough to warrant promotion.
Sooner or later, that must happen but Bopara is the man in possession, having played the last two matches of the summer against India when Jonathan Trott was injured. He neither pulled up trees nor sank without trace but England have come a long way with him and may not yet be ready to start their journey with Jonathan Bairstow, James Taylor or Jos Buttler.
Much, probably all, of what discussion there was, will have focused on the balance of the squad with the conclusion probably that it should be seven batsmen, five seamers, two spinners and two wicketkeepers. The UAE is in so many ways unknown territory – only four Tests have previously taken place in Dubai and Abu Dhabi where England will play – so it will be much wiser to have known quantities in the side.
Ideally England would take three spinners to a place where the pitches are likely to be slow, although, importantly, they do not entirely resemble those on the sub-continent. But England do not have three spinners worthy of the name for the hard grind of Test matches. So two will have to do and two will probably play in the starting XI. Graeme Swann, on whom so much will rest this winter and next when England play four Tests in India, is likely to be accompanied by Monty Panesar, whom he replaced as first choice two years ago.
Panesar has been in Australia playing grade cricket but was also the second spinner in Australia last winter. This time there will be work to do and his 69 Championship wickets for Sussex last summer at 27 runs each were the best in the country by a slow bowler.
It is just conceivable that England will discard the spare batsman or wicketkeeper. But from this distance the likelihood is that they would seek to play a starting XI on pitches where they will not blast out the opposition with five batsmen, with the highly accomplished wicketkeeper Matt Prior at six, three seamers and both their spinners.
Bairstow will certainly have featured in discussions, not only about the seventh batting place but also about the second wicketkeeper. Despite his wonderful start to international cricket when he won for England a match they should have lost at Cardiff in September by scoring 41 from 21 balls (which was followed by a less wonderful continuation in India when he made 49 runs in four innings) the selectors should conclude that he is not yet ready for a Test appointment in either capacity. England need two keepers in case Prior should fall ill on the morning of the match, with the vote probably going to Steve Davies, who was also the deputy on last year's tour.
Davies had a good year with the bat for Surrey after a slow start although a less assured one with the gloves. These things may be difficult to judge but he conceded more byes per innings than any other keeper to have played half his county's championship matches. (The fewest, incidentally, were conceded by Chris Read, who averaged 35 with the bat, but he is part of England's past).
Craig Kieswetter, the one-day incumbent, would be, like Bairstow, a risk in both departments. Davies it may well be then and deservedly so. Touring is tough for wicketkeeping deputies who inevitably have too little work to do.
Davies had an especially torrid time in Australia last year, worrying as he was about his seminal decision to declare publicly his homosexuality. It is his business, it is the 21st century but it remains a tough call for a professional sportsman. The likeable and diffident Davies made it and is a more assertive player for having done so, according to accounts. Eventually, England must evolve but for now there is no need but to stick with what has taken them so far.
AJ Strauss (captain), AN Cook, IJL Trott, KP Pietersen, IR Bell, EJG Morgan, MJ Prior (wkt), SCJ Broad, TT Bresnan, GP Swann, JM Anderson, ST Finn, SR Patel, MS Panesar, SM Davies (wkt), CT Tremlett
Pakistan v England - Three Tests: Tues 17 January, Dubai (6am); Weds 25 January, Abu Dhabi (6am); Friday 3 February, Dubai (6am).Reuse content