At the heart of all authentic selection lie pragmatism and ruthlessness. England abundantly demonstrated both those qualities in announcing a squad of 17 players to defend the Ashes in Australia this winter.
Three uncapped men have been chosen, none born in England. Two of the party have had recent clashes with authority for their off-the-field behaviour. Several cricketers with unblemished records, who have regularly been in and around the England dressing room, have been dispensed with.
That list includes three players who have been in the team this season and two others who appeared in squads for the Ashes at home. In addition, the selectors have named a performance programme squad of reserves who will also be in Australia, which includes an Australian who has yet to declare his intention to play for England.
To the mantra of continuity which this selection panel has preached since it was inaugurated nearly six years ago, can be added forgive and forget. Still, the team which takes the field in Brisbane for the first Test in November will largely contain familiar names. Nine could be inked in now and only a place for the third seam bowler and the No 6 batsman are truly at stake.
The three new additions to the squad are Ben Stokes, the exciting Durham all-rounder, Gary Ballance, the Yorkshire middle-order batsman, and Boyd Rankin, the gigantic fast bowler, who were born respectively in New Zealand, Zimbabwe and Ireland. They all have merit but all have come up on the rails for this tour.
At the start of this season Stokes was still in disgrace after being sent home early from an England Lions trip to Australia when a succession of late nights failed to endear him to the management. He now appears to be rehabilitated, a process which is always assisted by having more than a modicum of talent.
Something similar applies to the recalled Monty Panesar, who seven weeks ago was fined for urinating on a bouncer in a Brighton nightclub and shortly after had his contract at Sussex terminated. It was insisted that Panesar has come to terms with the problems that were besetting him but the dearth of spin bowling options will hardly have hurt his cause.
This lack of depth was amply displayed by Simon Kerrigan’s hapless Test debut in the final Ashes contest at The Oval. Clearly nervous, the poor chap looked utterly clueless in the face of a measured Australian onslaught and it would have been impossible to pick him for this tour, though he is in the performance programme party.
Kerrigan is not alone in being jettisoned, a fate that has befallen Chris Woakes, who also made his Test debut at The Oval, Nick Compton, who played nine Tests in India, New Zealand and at home earlier this summer, Graham Onions, who was in three of the squads for the season’s Ashes, and James Taylor, who was summoned at Old Trafford.
Onions, the leading wicket-taker in the country who has been instrumental in propelling Durham to the County Championship title, can be considered especially unfortunate. A highly skilled operator, he has been sacrificed on the altar of height.
The selectors have long been enamoured of tall fast bowlers able to extract bounce from a length, which can disturb the most composed of batting methods. In Rankin, Chris Tremlett and Steve Finn they have picked three giants.
One of them seems sure play at The Gabba when the series opens and if Finn is the likely candidate, Tremlett has support partly based on the incisive effect he had in Australia three years ago, while Rankin has taken vast strides, literally and metaphorically, in the last month with his bowling in the one-day series against Australia.
The initial batting spot behind the first-choice quintet is between Jonny Bairstow, Stokes, Ballance and perhaps Michael Carberry, who would open in case either Alastair Cook, the captain, or Joe Root were indisposed. Carberry’s runs for Hampshire in the Second Division have been deemed sufficient to topple Compton, whose Test career looks done and dusted. A pity for a man who cares so much. Bairstow will travel as the reserve wicketkeeper, which shows how far the craft has slipped in importance. They should not need to regret it but it is possible.
Geoff Miller, the national selector, read the list of 17 names in the Long Room at Lord’s flanked by the outgoing managing director of England cricket, Hugh Morris. He then appended the 17 players who will form the so-called performance programme. These included the Middlesex, Australian-born opening batsman, Sam Robson, who has not yet definitely declared his intention to play for England. It would be deeply embarrassing were he now to go off and play for the country of his birth. If Australia are in real trouble in the Ashes this winter it is theoretically possible that they could pluck Robson from the England performance programme to play for them.
Miller said that there were no left-field selections. This may be true up to a point but the panel has probably surprised itself with this unpredictable party. Had it been picked a month ago it is improbable that the same 17 names would have been picked.
There are actually 18 as it happens. Tim Bresnan, recovering from a stress fracture of the back, will travel to Australia to ensure he continues to receive the medical support necessary. If he can prove his fitness he will assuredly come into the reckoning.
The Australia coach, Darren Lehmann, described England’s cricket as “dour” during an interview of BBC Five Live. He may have a point but they have also just beaten his side 3-0 and have won three successive series.
Lehmann’s compatriots will make less of dourness and much more of provenance. Six of England’s 17 were not born in England. This may be the way of the globalised world and Stokes at least learned his cricket here and came through Durham’s academy. That will not stop Australia making the point ad tedium that England depend on cricketing mercenaries. England’s selectors have a job to pick the best available players. It does not much matter where they come from or what they have done.