In a rare announcement entirely connected with cricket, England will today reveal their squad for this winter's Ashes series against Australia. This does not, of course, completely preclude the severance of diplomatic relations between the countries some time in early January.
If there is less fanfare than usual surrounding the upshot of the selectors' deliberations, there are two reasons. First, the events of the past four weeks when the game has been embroiled in match-fixing allegations have temporarily dulled the appetite. Secondly, the normal idle, if fervent, speculation about the composition of the squad has been subdued because most of the names are already blindingly obvious.
Gone are the days when a batsman could make a late run on the rails by having a fertile August, or a fast bowler could emerge suddenly and force the selectors' hands. Continuity is the modern mantra and England have constantly demonstrated its value in the past 18 months.
Sometimes, it is possible they take it too far and that sound candidates are being denied an opportunity. But a glance at the county averages tells otherwise. Not much pressure is being put on those in possession and, although it was heartening to see the weight of runs scored by Adam Lyth of Yorkshire and James Hildreth of Somerset, they must do likewise next summer.
Of the 16 players who will be named today, only 13 or 14 are stone cold certainties. In addition, 12 will be going to Australia as a kind of support crew, officially known as the Performance Programme. The areas at issue are in the reserve fast bowling, spin bowling and wicketkeeping departments.
The squad is confidently expected to comprise (although not even these selectors can be wholly second-guessed) seven batsmen, five fast bowlers, two spin bowlers and two wicketkeepers. They will play four first-class fixtures, three before the Ashes, and five Tests.
The five seamers are likely to have taken up much of the discussion in the selectors' debating chamber. Three are certainties – Jimmy Anderson, Stuart Broad and Steve Finn. Three others are disputing the two remaining places. Tim Bresnan and Ajmal Shahzad are the men in possession, but Chris Tremlett, the tall Surrey fast bowler, has impressed influential judges this summer.
Whoever goes, it is an attack almost bereft of Test-match experience in Australia, save for Anderson's desultory three matches four years ago. Not that too much should perhaps be made of that. When Frank Tyson put Australia to the sword in 1954-55 and John Snow steamed in in 1970-71 – the Ashes being won both times – neither had played in Australia.
Tremlett moved counties from his native Hampshire (where his father played) last winter, which suggested that he does not lack ambition, as some have averred. He took 48 Championship wickets at 20.19 runs each for his new club in 2010, conceded well under three runs an over and, though he did not take five wickets in an innings, took four seven times. Tremlett has a crucial attribute, that of extracting steep bounce from a length, and when he played his only three Tests so far in 2007 he looked the part.
Either of the other two could consider themselves unfortunate if Tremlett sneaked ahead of them now. But that looks like happening and Bresnan, who played in the opening Test of the summer against Bangladesh and is a fixture in the one-day side, might be the one to go. He is one of life's triers, a robust cricketer, but he has looked a little undercooked for most of the summer.
In the spinning department the selectors had better hope that Graeme Swann does not fall over on the morning of a Test. There are two firm possibilities as his junior sidekick, James Tredwell, who played a solitary Test in Bangladesh earlier this year, and Monty Panesar, who played the most recent of his 39 Tests in Cardiff in July last year.
Tredwell has had a typically solid but unspectacular summer in a poor Kent side, taking 37 wickets at 29.68, Panesar has taken 52 wickets in a good Sussex team at 25.51. Tredwell can bat.
At the start of the season, Craig Kieswetter was flavour of the month and there seemed every likelihood that he would go to Australia as the second wicketkeeper. Nobody would have been surprised had he been the first by the end of the winter. But the mood has shifted, Kieswetter has struggled with the bat this season and has a Championship average well under 30. By contrast, Steve Davies has blossomed for Surrey and is now England's latest one-day keeper. He will be Matt Prior's deputy.
The seven batsmen are nailed on, six of them are almost certain to play in the opening Test in Brisbane in late November and, as if confirming the selectors' loyalty, five of them have been around for five years. If they do not know their roles and have mutual appreciation of each others' strengths and weaknesses by now it may be too late.
Ian Bell, who was forced to miss the Test series against Pakistan with a foot injury, will return and will also be in the XI. The man most feeling the pressure from the summer is Eoin Morgan, a multifaceted batsman who, despite a blazingly mature hundred at Trent Bridge in July, has still to convince some that his assets equip him to make a substantial Test career. (It may not matter that much for Morgan if he can make millions playing in Twenty20).
It will be a squad that has a genuine chance of retaining the Ashes. Nobody says it will be easy but everybody wants to talk of cricket again.
Six competing for the last two places
The fast men
For Big-hearted player who bowls straight, has learnt more about reverse swing than he is given credit for and can wield a bat properly. Much faster than he sometimes looks and still only 25. Popular dressing-room presence.
Against Sometimes appears to lack a plan B and looks short of the necessary to be a new-ball Test bowler. He can be alarmingly pedestrian and has had a moderate summer. May fall between two stools as a Test all-rounder.
For Since becoming the first Yorkshire-born Asian to play for the county he has advanced in huge leaps. As he showed on his Test debut he can swing the old ball and has enough confidence and wheels to trouble good players.
Against It would be asking a lot for him to step into Test matches, so limited is his experience. Was not a Yorkshire regular until last summer and has days when he can be innocuous.
For Has all the attributes needed for a fast bowler on Aussie pitches: pace, accuracy, bounce, movement. Has progressed since he played three Tests three years ago, knows his game and that of batsmen, and is fit again. Maybe his time.
Against Does he want it enough? Can he really cut it as a top-level speed merchant? Has been terribly injury-prone and there is a perception that he does not cope easily with the strains and stresses of fast bowling.
For A steady, calm pro who would not let England down and – like Graeme Swann – is an off-spinner who could trouble Australia's left-handed legions. He has scored first-class runs, including three hundreds.
Against Perhaps simply not up to international standard on unresponsive surfaces against top batsmen. England would be picking him as a travelling reserve. And he lacks Australian experience.
For A change of counties, from Northamptonshire to Sussex, appears to have had a restorative effect. In 2009 he took 18 first-class wickets, this summer he had 52. Has plenty of Test experience and knows what has to be done.
Against The early excitement surrounding him was quelled when he appeared not to learn new tricks ("has played the same Test 30 times" quipped Shane Warne). As the second spinner in an XI he may not bring enough to the party.
For Young, cocky all-rounder whose wrist spin sometimes seems as though it will be the answer to a nation's prayers. Has appreciable turn, plenty of county wickets and, once more, can bat.
Against Such limited international wisdom that it is impossible to think that he could make a Test debut in an Ashes series in Australia. Concern remains that he bowls too many bad balls and the feeling is that the Australians would devour him.
For Bold, assertive batsman and clean-as-a-whistle wicketkeeper. He moved from his home county Worcestershire to Surrey and has prospered as one of the Brown Hats' few successes. Has made the step up to the one-day side positively.
Against He has tended to lack authority behind the stumps by not making his presence felt sufficiently. In other words, he is simply too quiet. He can also make the odd clanger. His batting can be rather limited and as with others on the fringes he is inexperienced – in fact, he is yet to play a Test.Reuse content