The Ashes Squad

After two months of intense Ashes cricket, what better way to celebrate than by doing it all again?  The process all starts on Monday with the announcement of the touring party for the winter down-under.  The weeks leading up to the announcements of England squads to Australia used to be the subject of endless speculation.  In years gone by the squad always used to include one or two left-field youngsters who would go along just for the experience.  Martin Bicknell’s selection in 1990/1 was such a selection, as was Alex Tudor’s in 98/99 (although Tudor ended up playing an influential role in the series).  These days, the competition for places within the England team means there is no space for such luxury.  The selectors will pick the 17 players they think are capable of retaining the Ashes urn.  No room for any passengers.  So who will be on that flight to Australia.

Firstly, the batsmen; Alastair Cook is making his maiden voyage to Australia as captain so he’s obviously the first name on the teamsheet.  Add to that Ian Bell, Jonathan Trott and Kevin Pietersen and Joe Root and there are probably only two more spaces left for specialist batsmen.  Michael Carberry was mooted as a possible candidate but he seems to have done his chances more harm than good with his recent performances in the ODI’s.  I don’t think he will, but Nick Compton should go.  He has Test Match experience and can play as an opener as well as in the middle order.  I saw him play this season in the T20 quarter-final for Somerset against Surrey at the Oval.  He seemed very composed and compiled a tidy 20-odd not by slogging but by manipulating the ball around with classy touches and deflections.  He was by far the most accomplished batsman on either side that day.  I know he had a tough time earlier this summer against New Zealand but those problems were more mental than technical.

To go with Compton, Ravi Bopara and Eoin Morgan have also been mentioned due to their recent form in the one-day game but they have had their chances and been found wanting at Test level.  Ben Stokes could be a prudent selection.  He has been in the England limited overs squads for a couple of seasons now and has shown enough promise to be given at least an opportunity in the Test arena.  His batting stats are a bit disappointing in the four-day game this season; 563 runs at 28 apiece but his bowling is much more impressive – 40 wickets at a shade under 25.  He is still a very raw talent and to be a Test no. 6 his batting would have to improve, but he is an exciting cricketer and his performances over the past 3 seasons have warranted an opportunity with the Test squad.

The wicket-keepers pick themselves: Matthew Prior and Jonny Bairstow with the Yorkshireman just about good enough to play at no. 6 as a specialist batsman (he didn’t exactly cover himself in glory this summer however).  As I have mentioned elsewhere in this blog, Bairstow’s technique is looser than a wizard’s sleeve – not ideal for combatting the world’s best bowlers.  Until the England management are convinced that Bairstow has made his game more compact, the selectors should seriously consider moving Joe Root down the order to 6 and putting Compton back in to open for the first test in Brisbane.  Bairstow has become a bit of a liability in the batting order who does not put a high enough price on his wicket for my liking.

Until Monty Panesar’s ignominious fall from grace, the spinner situation was fairly simple.  Since Panesar was questioned by police in August, there have been serious question marks over Panesar’s mental capabilities.  If he is on top of his demons then he has to go because he is the second best spinner in the country, no question.  However if the England management feel he is going to be too much of a hindrance because of his off-field issues, a space becomes vacant.  Whoever is selected would most definitely be going as back-up to Graeme Swann, but with the Nottinghamshire man’s dodgy elbow, he may be called upon to play in the Tests.  I can safely say Simon Kerrigan will not be named in the touring party.  My 64 year-old father (he once took all 10 wickets in an innings) could have bowled better than the sack of shit Kerrigan served up at the Oval last month.  James Tredwell would be my choice.  He will not pull up any trees but he bowls very tight and deserves his chance after performing admirably in the one-day arena (he has a bowling average of 24.88 for England).  An outside choice would be Middlesex’s off-spinner Ollie Rayner.  I saw him bowl at the Oval last month and he took 15 wickets in the match and was nigh-on unplayable on an admittedly helpful wicket (and against some pretty dross batting).  His 6ft 5in frame makes him a very awkward customer to face and on bouncy Australian wickets, he could be a real handful.  The logical choice is Tredwell but if the selectors are feeling adventurous, Rayner could sneak in through the back door.

The seamers almost pick themselves.  James Anderson, Stuart Broad and Tim Bresnan are certainties.  Steven Finn is pretty sure of his place despite his indifferent season and Graham Onions has had yet another stellar year and must go on the tour.  I feel sorry for Onions.  He finally made it into the England team in 2009, only to be decimated by injuries and has always been on the fringes ever since.  He has taken a hatful of wickets in the past two seasons but has never been given his chance to show what he can do.  I really hope he gets an opportunity if he is selected.  The final seamer spot would seem to be Chris Tremlett’s.  Chris Woakes rather bowled himself out of contention with an innocuous performance in the fifth test against the Aussies.  Tremlett hasn’t had a great season for Surrey and when I have seen him in the flesh, he seems to have lost a bit of zip – a result of a catalogue of injuries throughout his career.  He had a real impact on the series in 2010/11 but I doubt whether he could re-create those performances.  If Tremlett isn’t selected then Boyd Rankin would seem to be in the driving seat.  A very similar bowler to Surrey man (like Tremlett he is 6ft 7in tall), Rankin is a very awkward customer to face.  The pace and bounce of the Australian wickets will most definitely suit his style of bowling.  The only drawback to his selection would be his lack of experience in Test Cricket.  He has played over 40 ODI’s, both for Ireland and England with great success but that is nothing compared to the intensity of an Ashes Test.  He would represent a very progressive selection.

No-one else has stood out this season in the county game.  Toby Roland-Jones was bandied about at the start of the season as a potential England bowler but injury has ruined his season and at 25 years of age, he still has time on his side.  Sussex’s Chris Jordan has had a wonderful season with both bat and ball since his move from Surrey. 50 wickets and a batting average of 25 is a very impressive return and his form was rewarded with a place in England’s one-day squad.  The Test touring party may be a step too far for him but he is certainly one to watch for the future.

So after much deliberation, my touring party would be as follows:

Cook

Compton

Root

Trott

Pietersen

Bell

Stokes

Bairstow

Prior

Swann

Panesar

Anderson

Broad

Bresnan

Onions

Finn

Tremlett

I’m pretty sure the 17 names on the above list would have more than enough to overcome Australia.  England aren’t at the peak of their powers by any stretch of the imagination, but the Aussies, especially with star fast-bowler Ryan Harris’ fitness doubtful for the series opener, aren’t in much better shape.  There’s even talk of bringing scattergun Mitchell Johnson back into the team.  If this is indeed the case, England are almost certain of returning to Blighty with the little urn in hand.

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England’s batsmen need to improve

England’s 170-run victory on Sunday was seriously impressive but it papered over the obvious cracks in the batting order.  Totals of 232 and 213 don’t really cut the mustard at international level and they needed their bowlers and some very injudicious shots from New Zealand to get them out of jail.  Against better teams they would have come unstuck and they cannot afford to repeat these batting collapses in the Ashes.

            England’s batting, especially in the first innings was worryingly pedestrian.  To score 160 in 80 overs is even slower than Geoffrey Boycott’s pet tortoise.  True, the outfield was overly lush which limited boundaries and the New Zealand bowlers were very accurate with the swinging ball, but England seemed to go into their shell instead of looking to rotate the strike with singles.  One man who was particularly guilty of this was Nick Compton; not naturally the quickest scorer in the world he scratched around for a painful hour and a half for 16 paltry runs.  Equally, his opening partner, captain Alastair Cook took two and a half hours for his 32.  Now there is nothing wrong with slow scoring as long as one is positive in one’s intent.  It was the first innings of the international summer so it is totally understandable that the batsmen were not at their most fluent but it seemed that at points, England were just aiming to survive instead of making the bowler think; for instance by batting out of the crease to disrupt the New Zealand attack’s length.

            The batsmen were much improved in the second innings until a wonderful spell by Tim Southee put the brakes on England’s total.  Joe Root and Jonathan Trott looked in good nick.  Root in particular has a very solid technique which has helped him flourish in the international arena.  He has a knack of making the bowler bowl to him so consequently he can manoeuvre the ball around the ground almost at will.  His mentality is impressive too – he is not afraid to knuckle down and build an innings patiently, as he demonstrated over the winter in India and New Zealand.

            However, England cannot rely on a rookie to score their runs.  It worries me that when Alistair Cook fails, the rest of the batting order looks vulnerable.  Trott is not scoring the volume of runs of old and Ian Bell, though often delightfully fluid, never inspires total confidence.  The brittleness of the batting was exemplified by Matt Prior’s pair at Lords.  England have relied heavily on his runs in the past 18 months but as a wicket-keeper, he cannot dig them out of a hole every match.  His two failures more than anything exposed England’s shortcomings.  I’m not convinced at all by Jonny Bairstow either.  He scored a fighting 95 against the South Africans at Lords last year and contributed 41 in England’s 1st innings last week but his technique for me still looks a little loose and he is yet to dispel the rumours that he is susceptible to a bit of chin music.  The Yorkshireman has a very good eye but for me that is not enough to thrive at international level.

            Various ‘experts’ have been suggesting that the return of Kevin Pietersen would solve all the problems.  There is no doubt that Pietersen is a wonderful cricketer and any team would be boosted by his presence, but even the Surrey man is not always a safe pair of hands.  Apart from his amazing hundred in India, he contributed relatively little in the four tests in the sub-continent.  Everyone waxes lyrical about his talents and rightly so, but time and again he throws his wicket away far too cheaply for a man of his undoubted ability.

            A lower order with the likes of Stuart Broad and Graeme Swann does not contribute often enough with the bat.  Broad in particular has a wonderful technique but lacks the application required to build an innings.  He needs to realise that he cannot just thrash the bat an anything outside off-stump.  Patience and judgement are required to score runs, not just a good eye.  Broad has more than enough ability to become a test number 7 – his century against Pakistan in 2010 is evidence enough, albeit against a supremely dodgy Pakistan attack.  At least he made a timely return to form with an entertaining, run-a-ball 26 in the 2nd innings.

            My criticism of England’s batting is doing a major disservice to the Kiwi’s bowling attack.  The seam trio of Trent Boult, Tim Southee and Neil Wagner bowled with no lack of skill and accuracy which were at times too much for the England batsmen.  Not since the likes of Chris Cairns, Dion Nash and Shane Bond have the New Zealanders had such a probing pace attack.  Boult impressed me, giving Compton a torrid time, exposing the flaws in his game.  He has the ability to swing the ball both ways and bowls that nagging Andy Caddick/Glenn McGrath length that is so difficult to score off.  Southee is also no mug with the ball.  His devastating spells on the third evenings and fourth mornings brought New Zealand within sight of a famous victory and he thoroughly deserved his 10-wicket haul.  I like his aggression – he is a tall man and is not afraid to mix it up with odd bumper and keep the batsman guessing.

            One thing that flummoxed me was Kiwi skipper Brendon McCullum’s decision not to have a fielder at point.  Instead he had a gully and a cover point in front of square, and this cost his team a mountain of runs, particularly in the 2nd innings.  Root and Trott were scoring at will through that area and yet McCullum stubbornly refused to change his field.  For me, point is an indispensable position; he not only stops boundaries and catches loose drives, but he can stop the singles too.  It is a no-brainer.

            Bruce Martin’s and Daniel Vettori’s injuries have left the Kiwis with a bowling vacancy for today’s test at Headingley.  It could be a blessing in disguise because the ground is traditionally a seamer’s paradise and the conditions are not dissimilar to back in New Zealand.  Doug Bracewell may well find himself thrust into the fourth seamer role.  He proved in March against England that he is not to be taken lightly.  Moreover Kane Williamson is more than handy as an occasional off-spinner and can be relied upon to bowl an extended spell if required.

            Before this series everyone was brazenly predicting an England walkover.  Did they not pay attention to the matches a couple of months previous?  New Zealand came within a whisker of winning that series.  This Kiwi side is not as soft as everyone thinks.  They do have a worrying propensity for a batting catastrophe (as well as Sunday, they were steamrollered for a sub-100 score in South Africa over the winter) but they also have some talented young cricketers who on their day and with a bit more experience can be a match for any side.  I wouldn’t put it past them to surprise England over the next 5 days.