Third Test preview: I'll be brave enough to drop misfiring batters, says Miller
National selector admits out-of-form players cannot stay in the side forever but is adamant that loyalty and continuity are crucial
England are likely to name an unchanged team for the Third Test which starts on Thursday. If the selectors do as expected – and this would be just the time for them to do the unexpected – it will be the fifth consecutive match that the same XI have taken the field, a level of continuity not achieved for 123 years, since Arthur Shrewsbury led England to an epic 3-2 win in Australia.
Beating New Zealand at Trent Bridge to secure the series will not have quite the same resonance, but it will none the less portray a determination by the selectors not to be swayed from their chosen course. It must have been a near thing.
England stole a result at Old Trafford last week to go 1-0 up in the series and could barely believe the victory themselves. They knew that to win a match in which the tourists were so far ahead they were almost out of sight they had to be batting again on Sunday, the third day, having bowled out New Zealand for a score as cheap as chips.
That they did so was down to a compelling spell of left-arm spin bowling from Monty Panesar, who again exhibited his mastery of favourable conditions. It was also a statement about the effectiveness of fast spin bowling – or at least the fact that fancy, flighty stuff is not always the answer. Panesar's natural pace going into the wind, at 55mph, did the trick. It was a reminder that England's champion left-arm spinner, Derek Underwood – and he always maintains that he was a spinner, not a slow seamer and cutter, as some aver – bowled at higher velocity than conventional spinners. Underwood took 297 Test wickets and is to be the next president of MCC. Who knows, then, what may lie in store for Panesar?
He extracted England from a deep hole in Manchester, where he has now taken 25 wickets in three Test matches, and Trent Bridge is his next most successful ground. Had his 6 for 37 not utterly undermined New Zealand, the selectors would have been under extreme pressure to change the team, if only to demonstrate that they were doing something.
Those most under pressure, but now presumably given a stay, were Paul Collingwood and, to a lesser extent because of the feeling that he ought to be given a longer sequence this time, James Anderson. To retain selectorial faith, Anderson simply has to be more controlled.
Collingwood is as out of form as it is possible for any international batsman to be. It would be almost a mercy for him to be dispatched to Durham to try to make some Championship runs. But that will not do in these days of central contracts.
It is legitimate to ponder, though he would deny it, whether Collingwood's shoulder, in which he had a second cortisone injection before the series began, is causing him discomfort or preying on his mind.
In case anybody was wondering, the chairman of selectors, Geoff Miller (it is quite impossible to call him by his new official title of national selector) is well aware of the delicate balance between continuity and constant evolution which all sports teams need.
"What we have to do is createloyalty and continuity, but as well as doing that you need pressure from outside, from fringe players," he said. "It's a bit of a Catch-22 really. It's a very difficult equation and really the most difficult of all the things you have to do. I personally sit down and think about this an awful lot."
Miller learned the art of selection under the former chairman, David Graveney, with whom he served for seven years. But it was something he thought about even when he was playing and winning 34 Test caps.
"We have given as much time to communication as we possibly can," he said. "So we get round the grounds and explain to everybody where we're coming from and how we're doing things so they know our position and that it isn't a closed shop. If we kept it all secret then those in the shires would feel that there is no way of getting into this because they don't know what the planning or the methods are. But that is not the case. We get out, talk to players and coaches and send the message out."
The last major selectorial change – and it was big stuff – was the omission after the First Test in New Zealand in March of Stephen Harmison and Matthew Hoggard. It showed that the new selectors were prepared to act decisively and it could be said to have worked, since England have won three of their four Tests since.
There has been some muttering that what did for the bowlers might equally serve the under-performing batsmen. England have now gone 11 matches without posting a first-innings total of 400, which they last did in a period spanning 2000 and 2001. Between late 1998 and the early summer of 2000 they went 13 straight matches without getting 400 but then, of course, they were an indifferent side.
The figure is an important one, because that is when teams can genuinely feel they are beginning to be masters of their own destiny. Part of the trouble for the selectors is that there is no single culprit, but the shortage of first-innings centuries – only three in the previous 11 matches – is telling and must be rectified. Why then can't the batsmen have a taste of the bowlers' medicine?
"We're aware of that feeling," said Miller. "Everybody is, and I think if we feel the need to do that we shall be strong enough and brave enough to do that. But it's our decision about whether it is necessary, we have to make it, you can speculate.
"When we make it the person coming in has to be given a run, so we have to be sure that person can do a better job than the one he is replacing." Timing is everything, as it is in batting. "Not too early, not too late," as Miller said. It is to be hoped that England's selectors, like some of their batsmen, have not mislaid theirs. After New Zealand's painful implosion in Manchester England should win again, a triumph for continuity.
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