So England have made two changes for the second test. I think there’s a case for both of them. In fact, the second one (Woakes for Stokes) most certainly involves a case … and even a resulting trial. I’ll get my coat. I really must stop making terrible contrived gags.
Before I address my somewhat provocative headline (!) I’ll quickly say that I think dropping Malan is 100% the right decision by Ed Smith. The previous regime might have given him another game under the old ‘we’d rather give a guy one game too many than one game too few’ mantra. I always thought that approach was a cop out. Surely it’s best to try and give a player exactly the right number of chances? And that’s exactly what Smith has done here.
Although Malan seems like a good egg, and I’ve enjoyed the honesty of his interviews in the past, I think he’s shot at this point. Smith is right when he says Dawid’s game is more suited to overseas conditions, not least because he doesn’t move his feet that well. The fact he dropped 2/3 catches at Edgbaston also proves that his confidence is really low. In the circumstances it’s probably best to put him out of his misery. Call it a cruel necessity.
The other good news, in my humble opinion, is that Chris Woakes is back, a week after he was deemed not fit or sharp enough to play. Again I feel this is the right call. I like the Warwickshire man as an all-round cricketer and feel he has plenty more to give. His bowling is effective in home conditions, and his batting is orthodox and underrated. He’s the best like-for-like replacement available.
Now we move onto Ollie Pope, the prodigy from Surrey. After all, this is the headline selection for sure …
I predicted a couple of days ago that Smith wouldn’t be able to resist selecting a prolific 20 year old with just 16 first class games under his belt because it would seem like the daring and progressive thing to do. And so it has proved. However, this obviously isn’t the only reason Pope has been picked! His pure talent and his superb form this year obviously have a lot to do with it too. In fact, Pope is one of the most exciting talents to emerge in a long time.
When I first heard the news confirming that Pope had been preferred to Joe Clarke, who I understood was the leading candidate, I was extremely disappointed and put out a tweet that was a little too emotional. I’ve since deleted this tweet as on reflection it seemed anti-Pope. Believe me this wasn’t my intention at all. My big fear beforehand was that Smith might pick Jason Roy or even Alex Hales i.e. another white ball specialist; therefore Pope’s inclusion comes as something of a relief.
Obviously I’m also delighted that championship form has been recognised by the selectors for once. The selections of Rashid and Buttler angered me because these guys hadn’t played much first class cricket recently so they seemed like a slap in the face for the championship. The same cannot be said for Pope, who would’ve been my second choice after Clarke. The little I’ve seen of Pope has been very impressive, and obviously he’s had glowing reports from just about every observer around.
Having said that I do have some concerns. Pope currently bats at No.6 for Surrey, yet it’s been reported that he will bat 4 for England. This obviously seems counterintuitive. If Pope is that good (one might argue) then why doesn’t he bat higher for Surrey? After all he’s batting below several players England have overlooked in the Surrey batting line-up.
I’ve seen it argued that Surrey have the luxury of fielding Pope down the order whereas England do not. Although I can see the argument, I don’t find this explanation particularly convincing. After all, surely Surrey like any other team want their best batsmen to bat for the longest period of time? It worries me that Alec Stewart obviously feels that guys like Scott Borthwick are (at this point) better suited to making large scores than England’s great new hope.
What’s more, it’s surely a concern that asking a county No.6 to bat No.4 in a test match is a huge ask. It’s a substantial step up in class and intensity and we have no idea how Pope will react. That’s why I would have preferred Clarke, who is a little older and has had far more exposure to the Lions system. Pope might have a very impressive first class average but the sample size (just 16 first class games) is relatively small. Plenty of players, including Ed Smith himself, have enjoyed purple patches in the past but then faded away. Nick Compton also springs to mind. And once upon a time Ben Duckett was flavour of the month. Basically, there must be a concern that this might be too much too soon for young Ollie.
Obviously one might say that we just need to trust the selectors on this one. They’ve seem Pope close up, know his character well, know his game, and they feel he’s the right man for the job. Basically this is the ‘in Ed we trust’ approach. Unfortunately I find it hard to go along with this – mainly because I’ve seen over the years how much Ed Smith the writer liked to put some whacky ideas out there. Sometimes it seemed to me that he explored these ideas just for the sake of exploring them.
My big fear is that in a straight shootout between Clarke and Pope, the younger man got the nod simply because he’s a sexier or more interesting / stimulating pick. And this, of course, would be very harsh on Clarke. Obviously me making such statements is a bit dangerous. After all, it’s just a theory of mine and it’s very hard to substantiate. Therefore, I’ll try to put it another way without using the pejorative and somewhat facetious language I’ve used in the past! I hope you’ll see why expressing this argument in a tweet is almost impossible.
Basically, I believe all people (including me of course) make decisions based on their experiences and personality. Call it a ‘way of thinking’ if you like. And this way of thinking naturally reflects a set of biases. For example, some people are naturally risk-averse and hate the idea of the unknown. Other people, on the other hand, are natural risk takers and they’re enamoured with ideas that are bold. They also love thinking outside the box – if only for its own sake. I’m sure we’ve all come across such characters in the office.
It’s my assertion, after reading his prose for years, that Ed Smith falls into this latter bracket. And I do think it’s a danger that this impacts his decision-making process. Therefore, given a choice between a fancy new strategy that’s something of a risk, and a safer route than others (even the majority) might take, then I think he’s wired to prefer the former. And I worry this could be why, in my very humble opinion, Pope has got the nod over Clarke in this specific instance. I wouldn’t exactly write this in an academic paper (or even a broadsheet newspaper) but this is just a blog so forgive me this indulgence and speculation.
I’ve said in the past that there’s nothing sinister about Smith’s approach (if indeed it is Smith’s approach). It’s very human. However, my suspicions in this instance have been fuelled by some of the reasons given for Clarke’s omission. For example, some journalists have suggested that Clarke was left out because his fielding isn’t up to scratch. I find this a bit curious because he’s actually a wicket-keeper; therefore his hands should be a lot safer than Malan’s. When the reasons given for a particular decision don’t add up, I naturally look for other reasons – and I suspect the real reasons might be too illogical for the powers that be to admit.
Anyway, the bottom line is that none of this really matters. England have picked a promising 20 year old and this is probably something to celebrate. In the past England have been weighed down by conservatism. There were times during the Flower era when the same names were trotted out test after test no matter how poorly the team had played the game beforehand. Perhaps having a national selector who’s cut from a different cloth makes a nice change? Even if there’s a danger of going from one extreme to the other.
Either way we all wish Ollie Pope all the best on debut. I hope he scores millions.