The bell tolls as Strauss calls time in Last Chance Saloon
Policy of loyalty may have to end under new leadership, especially in top order
When the dust settles, England may find they have a cricket team to pick. That is, to ponder, to cogitate and perhaps to alter rather than to conduct long, thoughtful meetings while holding rubber stamps in their hands.
Somehow, they may find this task easier both in prospect and action than they would have done, say, four weeks ago. The England squad who leave for 10 weeks in the West Indies on Wednesday have been through a lot lately.
Hammered from pillar to post in a one-day series in India, they suddenly had to regroup in earnest after the terrorist attack on Mumbai which sent them scuttling home. In rather noble fashion, which took a few days to manifest itself, they returned, only to lose a Test they should have won, and with it the series.
Then the storm broke. There was, it was said, mutiny in the camp. In the first days of the new year England contrived to shed a coach and a captain. Whatever the merits of who did what, it was another traumatic event for the team to withstand.
After that, picking the best 11 players for the First Test in Jamaica should be a doddle. England have rightly made a virtue of loyalty in the past few years. Recently, this has seemed to reach obsessive heights, especially with regard to the batting. The only notable amendment has been the omission of Michael Vaughan and that, originally at least, was of his own doing.
Others have been imbibing more regularly in the Last Chance Saloon than Eddie Grundy in The Bull at Ambridge. This has been born partly out of loyalty, the resistance to easy change, and partly because of the feeling that Test players take time to become accustomed to the rhythms and pressures of international cricket. It was one of the verities trotted out by the erstwhile coach, Peter Moores, that almost all Test batsmen scored far more heavily in the second half of their careers than the first. Moores was to find, of course, that loyalty is not always a two-way street, and it will be fascinating to discover if England retain his philosophy.
Most at risk is Ian Bell, and the new captain, Andrew Strauss, must determine along with his fellow selector on tour, the assistant coach, Andy Flower, if enough is enough. Bell has made one fifty in his past 10 innings since the excellent 199 at Lord's against South Africa, which it was hoped would be his breakthrough innings.
It has not happened, and Bell has begun to look more, not less, diffident at the crease. But Strauss will have to take into account that he himself went through a long trot of poor form – and without looking the part – yet retained selectorial faith. He was dropped for the tour of Sri Lanka last winter but was recalled without anything having changed for the next one, to New Zealand, that followed. The other case in point is Paul Collingwood, who has spent a whole career being an innings away from being dropped, especially last summer, and has survived.
To suggest that Bell thus deserves another go is a smack in the eye for the long-suffering Owais Shah, who would have found waiting for Godot more rewarding than waiting for England's selectors to give him a run. It is tempting to suggest that either the sel-ectors do that now or let Shah, by whom they have always appeared somehow unconvinced, return whence he came.
If Bell is dropped, it may be some time before he gets back – probably not in time for the Ashes. Despite his poor returns it is a big call, because so much is properly expected of him. Bell really does have it all, or most of it that counts; hence the continuity. Could it be that what he lacks is the most crucial ingredient of all, the one that is indefinable but essential to regular success at Test level? The young would call it the international mojo.
Much has been made of the conditions in which Bell has made his eight hundreds (never the first for the team, for instance), but England have won four of those matches – and lost none. Of the indubitably gritty Collingwood's seven centuries, only one has led to an England win, with three defeats.
When they have done with the batting the selectors have the bowling to consider, and with three spinners in the party Monty Panesar is under immediate threat from both the others,Graeme Swann and the tyro Yorkshireman Adil Rashid.
Ryan Sidebottom, England's player of the year a year ago, is back and fit again, Stephen Harmison will not be left out for much longer, Jimmy Anderson is under threat. The selection is in new hands and they will be aware that they are picking a side not only to beat West Indies, which may not quite be straightforward, but, by now, to take on Australia in the summer.
West Indies tour dates
25-27 Jan: v St Kitts XI, St Kitts
29-31 Jan: v West Indies A, St Kitts
4-8 Feb: First Test, Jamaica
13-17 Feb: Second Test, Antigua
21-22 Feb: v BCA President's XI, Barbados
26 Feb-2 March: Third Test, Barbados
6-10 March: Fourth Test, Trinidad
14 March: v WIPA President's Select XI, Trinidad
15 March: Twenty20 international, Trinidad
20 March: First ODI, Guyana
22 March: Second ODI, Guyana
27 March: Third ODI, Barbados
29 March: Fourth ODI, Barbados
3 April: Fifth ODI, St Lucia (d/n)
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