Time is right to pick Shah and Key
After the humiliation in Kingston, now is the moment for a bold selection, argues Stephen Brenkley, Cricket Correspondent
Tuesday 10 February 2009
AS England trotted out the same old refrain yesterday it was as clear as mud what they should do next. The soundings from inside a chastened camp were familiar – no divisions in the team, plenty of great players bursting to fulfil their potential, the promise of better tomorrows, blah, blah, blah.
But after the explosive nature of the tourists' defeat in the first Test the stage might have been reached in the affairs of men when something must be done. Then again, it might not. England's management (and there are plenty of them around even if nobody quite knows who the head honcho is) must quickly work out what the team should be for the second Test against the West Indies, which begins in Antigua on Friday.
Their assessment must embrace not only the mind-boggling collapse in which they were bowled out for 51, England's third lowest Test total of all time, but also the equally disturbing truth that they had been outplayed, albeit narrowly, for most of the three days that went before. The defeat by an innings and 23 runs was stunning in its finality. The selectors must now decide whether the team which lost is too shell-shocked to proceed further, or not good enough, or whether that as they got England into this mess they can jolly well get them out of it.
Their room for manoeuvre is strictly limited because, as they will soon realise, the squad for this tour is hopelessly balanced. There are only six specialist batsmen for a start and only two specialist openers, while there are three spinners. The question could reasonably be asked: "Who selects the selectors?"
Of course, the first priority has to be to pick a team to get England back into this series quickly, and the early indication from thousands of miles away is that the pitch at the Sir Vivian Richards Stadium in Antigua will be flat and slow. In their minds, however, because it never leaves an Englishman's mind for long, is what they might have to do later in the year when the Ashes are to be contested.
There is an insistence that there will be no instant verdicts and that a time for calm reflection is needed. West Indies, on the other hand, acted decisively yesterday by changing their winning team, dropping Xavier Marshall, who made a duck in Kingston, for the uncapped Lendl Simmons, who scored 282 for West Indies A against England a fortnight ago.
It would be unprecedented for England to select their team from outside the squad, and an admission that they got it wrong. Time, in any case, is running out but theoretically they could summon Michael Vaughan, who is centrally contracted and had some backers for this tour. Another option is to head off some members of the England Lions party as they head for the airport for their tour of New Zealand. Robert Key (left) and Joe Denly, the two openers from Kent who are in that party, have their supporters. Key has Test experience and a double-century against the present opposition and, if he has deficiencies (who doesn't?), he is a hard-nosed pragmatist at the crease.
Realistically, however, England must make do for now with what they have got. It isn't much. In batting terms it means deciding whether to pick the perpetually overlooked Owais Shah and in bowling terms it means trying to judge whether Jimmy Anderson would be more effective than the other seamers or Graeme Swann more purposeful than Monty Panesar.
It can be safely presumed that Adil Rashid, the Yorkshire all-rounder, and the second wicketkeeper, Tim Ambrose, will be overlooked. There would be a kind of reckless romance in going for Rashid, who is here to learn. His partly formed leg-spin would clearly add something different, it looks as though he can bat and he is 21 on the last day of the Antigua Test.
Imagine the eternal headlines if he were to bowl West Indies out on that afternoon. It will not happen, but if any time is for fanciful dreaming this is probably it.
Andrew Strauss, the captain, Andy Flower, the assistant coach, and Geoff Miller, the chairman of selectors, will doubtless start at the top of the batting order. If it had not occurred to them before, it will now, that Strauss and fellow opener Alastair Cook are left-handed and have similar off-stump frailties, making it a tad easier for new ball bowlers.
Cook gamely defended England yesterday in the face of some pretty hostile, knee-jerk questions, although his statement that "there are some very good players, some great players, in our side," was stretching things a bit. He said the team have to stick together, which is true.
Cook, without a hundred for 23 innings though with eight fifties, could probably do with some pressure on his place. The only other feasible opener here is Ian Bell and in his frame of mind he could not be entrusted with the task. Or should not be, because it would be a reward for failure.
In the absence of a wild gamble Strauss and Cook will stay. The selectors are obviously uncertain about Shah, otherwise they would have picked him before. If they cannot find room for him now, in place of Bell, they never will. Bell plays beautifully but his mind wanders and his bat follows.
The prime candidate to be dropped from the bowling line-up is Stephen Harmison, who in Kingston came into that category of being sort of all right but toothless. The contrast with the Harmison of five years ago at Sabina Park was stark. If they do not pick him in Antigua, they might never pick him again. As for Panesar, he suffered badly by comparison with Sulieman Benn who has played four Tests to Panesar's 36.
Enough prevaricating. England, without any great expectation, could truly gamble and pick for Antigua: Strauss, Key, Shah, Pietersen, Collingwood, Flintoff, Prior, Broad, Sidebottom, Swann, Anderson. They won't. They are more likely to go for an unchanged side. "We must stick together and I know we will," said Cook. And the 11 vanquished of Sabina Park might be given the opportunity.
The gambler's XI: Were England to take a chance for the next Test
*A J Strauss (56 Tests) Captain, two hundreds two matches ago. Untouchable.
*R W T Key (15 Tests) Tough operator worth outrageous gamble now.
*O A Shah (2 Tests) Now or never for constant spare batsman.
*K P Pietersen (46 Tests) Enough said.
*P D Collingwood (42 Tests) Doubts persist but nobody to challenge him.
*A Flintoff (73 Tests) He is too high up in this position but will stay there.
*M J Prior (13 Tests) Has looked the second-best batsman to Pietersen of late.
*S C J Broad (11 Tests) First five-wicket haul at least a good sign.
*R J Sidebottom (19 Tests) Steady, accurate but needs swing and reverse swing badly.
*G P Swann (2 Tests) Joker in the pack, worth a go for that reason alone.
*J M Anderson (31 Tests) Uncertain what he might bring to proceedings but can deliver unplayable balls.
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