Vaughan needs the big hitters to halt Test slide
David Graveney's fate as England's chief selector may already have been decided by those wielding power at the England and Wales Cricket Board, but the Test squad he reveals today will be under a huge amount of pressure when they gather in New Zealand next month after a five-match one-day series and two Twenty20 internationals against the Kiwis have been completed.
It is not that there are hugely contentious decisions facing Peter Moores, Geoff Miller and Graveney, who will be interviewed next week, along with several other candidates, for the newly created position of national selector. It is simply that this is a Test series England must win.
Since the high of 2005 when the Ashes were regained, England have lost four and won two of the eight Test series they have played, a strike rate that has resulted in Michael Vaughan's side sliding from second to fifth in the world rankings.
The fluid nature of the rankings and the close proximity of the four teams below Australia at the top India, Sri Lanka, South Africa and England mean that England could move up the table as quickly as they descended, but that will only happen if they comfortably defeat the Black Caps in the three-Test series.
Moreover, the most important thing for England is that they start playing high-quality Test cricket again, a goal that has evaded them for too long.
If they are to become a major force again, the big players with impressive Test records have to start performing more consistently. Pretty little seventies offer promise but they win very few games, as does the occasional good spell of bowling that claims two or three wickets. Vaughan, Ian Bell, Kevin Pietersen and Paul Collingwood need to start scoring big hundreds, while Matthew Hoggard, Stephen Harmison, James Anderson and Monty Panesar must begin dominating games with the ball.
However, should some of them fail to reach these objectives and the series is lost in New Zealand, a few must be shown the door.
Despite the disappointing nature of the performance and the 1-0 series defeat in Sri Lanka last month, the England selectors are expected to show loyalty to those picked for the pre-Christmas tour. On the subcontinent the triumvirate selected an extra middle-order batsman, a player they believed was capable of handling Muttiah Muralitharan. Ravi Bopara was identified as the man but he did not fulfil the role.
Though the policy failed, it was a sound cricketing decision, but different principles apply in New Zealand, where the pitches historically offer more assistance to the seamers. Here it would make sense to replace a middle-order player with another top-order batsman, probably an opener.
The strategy would result in Andrew Strauss returning to the squad ahead of Bopara, or Owais Shah, who did not play in a Test in Sri Lanka. For this reason it would be harsh to omit Shah. It is Bopara who should make way. The all-rounder remains a very exciting young cricketer with a bright future and he will soon get another chance.
Strauss will shortly begin playing domestic cricket for Northern Districts in New Zealand and he will find it easier to gain selection to the 16-man touring party than the 11 who play in the first Test in Hamilton. The omission of Strauss in Sri Lanka meant that Vaughan opened the batting with Alastair Cook for the first time and England would be reluctant to break the partnership just yet.
Strauss is not a No 6, but he could bat at three, an alteration that would see Bell move to four, Pietersen to five and Collingwood to six. Bell and Pietersen would be reluctant to move, even though Bell has a better record batting at four and Pietersen has played some of his best cricket at five.
The only other places up for discussion are those of the wicketkeepers. Matthew Prior had a mixed tour of Sri Lanka, keeping well in the opening two Tests of the series and playing an important innings in each match. But on the negative side was his keeping in the third Test in Galle, where he dropped three catches and had a shocker.
It is easy to call for Prior's head and those who do would have little idea of how physically demanding it is to keep wicket in such heat in back-to-back-to-back Tests. The only England player who worked harder than Prior in Sri Lanka was Ryan Sidebottom and he looked absolutely shattered by the end of the series. Prior is a very capable cricketer and he deserves one more opportunity to show that he can do it.
Phil Mustard was a popular second keeper in Sri Lanka, but doubts remain over his ability as a Test batsman and England could opt for Tim Ambrose or James Foster. The selectors are keen on Ambrose and he and Prior are the likelier tourists.
England's failure at last autumn's Twenty20 World Championship in South Africa should have shown the selectors that they do not need to pick Twenty20 specialists. They should select the best one-day players and allow them to develop into Twenty20 players.
Only injury is likely to bring any major changes to the one-day squad who won in Sri Lanka. Luke Wright and Chris Tremlett are currently fit, but should injury return Jonathan Trott and Graham Onions, both of whom impressed during the England performance programme side's tour of India last month, could replace them.
England expect better in New Zealand from...
Michael Vaughan, Captain
A weakness of split captaincy arrives when one of the two teams is successful and the other is not. That is the case with England and pressure on Vaughan would increase hugely if the one-day side, captained by Paul Collingwood, won their series and the Test team struggled. Vaughan desperately needs a series win.
Kevin Pietersen, Batsman
England's best batsman had his worst series yet in Sri Lanka, averaging 25. Was it his impending marriage, or poor form? Pietersen is allowed a below-par tour, everyone has them. The problem is England rely on him so much. Pietersen is such a dominant player and he intimidates the opposition. When he plays well England tend to.
Stephen Harmison, Fast Bowler
His figures in Sri Lanka were unspectacular six wickets at 36 but it was widely felt that England's spearhead made significant progress during the tour. Those improvements must be followed up and by that we are talking about 15-plus wickets at an average of less than 25. If not, it could be time to bring in the younger brigade.
TEST SQUAD M P Vaughan (capt), T R Ambrose, J M Anderson, I R Bell, S C J Broad, P D Collingwood, A N Cook, S J Harmison, M J Hoggard, M S Panesar, K P Pietersen, M J Prior, O A Shah, R J Sidebottom, A J Strauss, G P Swann.
ONE-DAY SQUAD P D Collingwood (capt), J M Anderson, I R Bell, R S Bopara, S C J Broad, A N Cook, A D Mascarenhas, P Mustard, K P Pietersen, M J Prior, O A Shah, R J Sidebottom, G P Swann, C T Tremlett or G Onions, L J Wright or I J L Trott.
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