Sorry circus running out of options, time and ideas
England are so desperate for some middle order inspiration that 39-year-old veteran Mark Ramprakash is being touted for a shock recall. Can he really be the answer to the latest crisis, asks Stephen Brenkley
Tuesday 11 August 2009
When the England selectors begin to unscramble their thoughts they ought to recall that there is nothing new under the sun. It might help to cool down the heated debate on the subject of Mark Ramprakash.
The movement to recall to the Test team the most accomplished batsman in England gathered pace yesterday. After being given the heavy stamp of approval by many worthies, the notion seemed to be given additional credence when Geoff Miller, the chairman of selectors, politely declined to rubbish it as fanciful.
Perhaps Miller could say little else in public and when he and his panel assemble privately they will laugh out loud and move on to next business. To wit, can they really pick Ravi Bopara again, whoever replaces him?
Of course, nobody would be talking of Ramprakash's abundant merits if England had not performed at Headingley with breathtaking ineptness. But the Ashes are still at stake as England's coach, Andy Flower, sensibly reminded everyone after the defeat.
Australia may have acquired most of the bragging rights because of the manner in which they drew level and because the aggregate of individual performances in the series shows they dominate all categories. But the score line is 1-1 and, as hundreds of films have found, pre-eminence in the Oscar nominations counts for nothing on awards night. There is all to play for at The Oval in nine days' time. As Flower, however, said: "The output in terms of runs from our middle order is simply not good enough. We have scored one Test century in four Tests, the opposition have scored seven and that is as clear an indication to what's happening on the batting front as we need."
For Flower the most disappointing aspect of England's destitute first innings was that it perfectly impersonated the side's misdemeanours against South Africa at Headingley last year when they were all out for 203. "The whole feel and the types of dismissals and the types of shot that were played in that innings were similar," he said. "And that's what disappoints me. Twelve months on – we want to see some learning."
On that basis heads must roll. Ramprakash is being touted on two grounds: England's obvious need for somebody different in an early middle order which contributed a grand total of 16 runs in two innings at Headingley; and his continued magisterial presence at the crease a month short of his 40th birthday in a summer when he has already scored five hundreds and has an average of 100.75.
It is seven years since Ramprakash last played for England and his batting average of 27.32 after 52 Tests hardly speaks of a saviour incarnate. But it may be pertinent that against Australia he averages 42.41, more than all the current players, and last time out against them in 2001, at The Oval as it happens, scored 133.
Of course, it is all a reflection both on the team's displays and on the lack of quality in English batting. The presence of the Performance Centre at Loughborough from which so much was promised and of academies at almost every county have still failed to produce batsmen with serious credentials.
Jonathan Trott, who was in the squad for the fourth Test but overlooked for a fifth bowler, has been here for six years but learnt his cricket in South Africa. He is a product of that system, not the English one. But though Trott was the preferred addition to the squad in Leeds it would be audacious, maybe foolhardy, for the selectors to ask him to make his debut in a winner-takes-all Test against Australia.
Whatever the selectors decide there will be no rubber-stamping of the team this time. Nor should they totally ignore their predecessors. There is a legion of honourable precedents for recalling veterans. In 1956, the 41-year-old Cyril Washbrook, by then a selector himself, was recalled because England's pursuit of the Ashes was being hampered by their non-functioning middle order. After five years away he made 98 (at Headingley), England won by an innings and were on their way.
Ten years later, with the West Indies threatening to run riot, England turned to the 39-year-old Tom Graveney, who made 96 in his first innings back and played for another three years. Miller himself was party to the decision in 2003 to recall at the age of 34, after 10 years, the seamer Martin Bicknell, who was prominent in securing a draw in the series against South Africa.
And there was 1926. It was 0-0 going to The Oval. England made four changes, brought in a new captain (though nobody is suggesting that this time) and extraordinarily recalled after five years the Yorkshire left-arm spinning all-rounder Wilfred Rhodes. England regained the Ashes, Rhodes played a key part.
Of one fact the selectors should be brutally certain, even if they are not made aware of it by the England managing director, Hugh Morris. If they take the conservative approach by continuing their policy of faith, loyalty, unwillingness to select – call it what you will – and it fails spectacularly, then a new panel may be convened to select different selectors.
When a team has been beaten, albeit in such crushing circumstances as England managed, it is too easy to react injudiciously. The expectations on Ramprakash, if picked, would be so great as to be unsustainable. But a day of sober reflection after the Headingley debacle could not alter the most salient point: England are desperate.
'Kash back? The case for and against
*Mark Ramprakash has been touted as the middle-order man to get the runs England so desperately need in the final Ashes test at The Oval next week. But what do the experts think?
Alec Stewart (former England captain) Fancies Ramprakash's chances:
"This is a cup final, it's just a one-off game – bring the best player in England back as a possibility. [He is] the best by a country mile."
*Ricky Ponting (Australia captain) Not so sure:
"He's a fine player, whether it's the right time to bring him back into a Test match is a different story."
*Chris Adams (Surrey coach) Emphatically in favour:
"If I was an England selector picking my best side, he'd be in it. He is playing the best cricket of his life. He has done so for three years. I believe strongly he has been the best batsman available for England for those three years."
*Mark Butcher (former England batsman) Prefers others:
"I don't know if they'll give Jonathan Trott a Test debut in a game like that. Robert Key could be the man, although I think Mark Ramprakash would be a pretty outlandish choice."
Compiled by Sam Cunningham
Main contenders: Who could step in at The Oval
Michael Carberry (28, Hampshire)
First-class average: (this season) 67.00
Highest score: (this season): 204
Scored fourth County Championship century in four matches last week.
Joe Denly (23, Kent)
First-class average: 39.06
Highest score: 123
Has represented England at under-17, under-18 and under-19 levels.
Robert Key (30, Kent)
First-class average: 49.83
Highest score: 270 no
Tests: 15 (debut v India, August 2002)
Test average: 31.00
Was selected in 2002-2003 England side who lost to Ashes in Australia.
Stephen Moore (28, Worcestershire)
First-class average: 33.75
Highest score: 120
Scored 120 for England Lions against Australia last month.
Mark Ramprakash (39, Surrey)
First-class average: 100.75
Highest score: 274
Tests: 52 (debut v West Indies, June 1991)
Test average 27.32
Played most recent of 52 Test matches in New Zealand in March 2002.
Owais Shah (30, Middlesex)
First-class ave: 40.35
Highest score: 159
Tests: 6 (debut v India, March 2006)
Test average: 29.50
Reached 13,000 first-class runs in the third Test against West Indies in February.
Jonathan Trott (27, Warwickshire)
First-class average: 90.85
Highest score: 184*
South-African born batsman. Called up to the England squad that lost the fourth Ashes Test at Headingley last week, but failed to make the final XI.
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