Ladies and gentlemen. I’d like to introduce you to Joe. No, not Joe Root, the other Joe. The one who plays for Kent. Joe Denly. Isn’t his coat nice and fluffy? He’s sure to fetch a good price at market. Now where did I put that meat cleaver?
Here at England team headquarters we love a good sheep. As long as they’re white. We don’t like black sheep like that one called Alex. We thought his superb white ball form might make make him an England opener a couple of years back but it didn’t pan out. He didn’t learn how to play the new red ball. And we didn’t learn anything from the experience either.
Fast forward a couple of years and we’ve got a shiny new sheep called Jason – although, between you and me, he’s more like a ram in terms of temperament. This lovely specimen looks as succulent as any we’ve ever had. And Ed tells us he’s got a golden fleece! Funny that, as usually it’s us supporters who get fleeced at the cricket.
Anyway, I digress. We thought Jason made a lovely sacrificial lamb at the top of the order in the first three Ashes tests. But now that he’s been eaten alive, it’s time to sacrifice another poor fluffy thing. And that’s where Joe comes in.
Jason, on the other hand, can come in at 4 – a luxury never afforded to the black sheep, or any of the other failed openers we’ve previously experimented with. Well, we all have our favourite pets.
But please don’t cry for Joe though. He’s the perfect lamb to sacrifice because he’s older and his meat’s a bit tough – although I thought he looked quite pleasant on the drive down here.
Yes, we know he’d just started to acclimatise to his new pen at second drop – and he’s only opened once in county cricket over the last 5 years – but old farmer Ed knows best. We all think England’s new batting order is bound to succeed. Don’t ewe?
Apologies for the above, but it’s hard to take the selectors’ response to the first three tests of this Ashes series entirely seriously. They’ve clearly been drinking the Kool aid again. England batsmen have been mince meat for most most of the summer – they even got humiliated by Ireland – and yet Ed Smith’s only response has been to tinker with the batting line up rather than personnel.
What’s more, I cannot agree with the decision to swap Roy and Denly around. For starters, it’s completely unfair on Denly. He’s not an opener either. He was once an opener – a promising one at that – but that was a long time ago. And he’s only made one half-century opening in his last fifteen attempts.
What’s more, I simply don’t agree with moving a bloke who’s just scored a crucial half-century. This decision smacks of favouritism, ego, and intransigence to me. The selectors have staked their reputation on Jason Roy – another attempted white ball convert – succeeding at test level but they simply can’t bear the fact that it isn’t working out. And with Jos Buttler, the other big selection of Ed Smith’s regime also looking a bit shaky at 5 (and now 7!), the selectors probably want one or two further opportunities to be proved right.
Although I can see what they’re trying to do cricket-wise, I actually think this move is just as likely to weaken the team as strengthen it. Although in theory Roy should find life easier at 4 (although it’s probably still two places too high for him) Denly’s life has just got immeasurable harder; therefore England are still likely to lose early wickets.
This presents two potential problems (a) Roy will still probably have to face a relatively new and hard ball anyway, and (b) rather than a guy who has made two test fifties (including one in his last innings) striding to the crease with two wickets down, we’ll now have a player who must be extremely low on confidence.
I’m afraid I’m not convinced that Roy will fare much better now that he’s being protected. He’ll still need to know where his off stump (an ability he hasn’t demonstrated thus far), and I imagine the sledging will be intolerable: “so you’re hiding down the order now mate … couldn’t hack it could ya?” ad nauseam. The Aussies can then recycle the same lines when Buttler comes in.
What annoys me is that England do actually have a couple of obvious alternatives this time. Although the county cricket cupboard has been quite bare of late, there are two obvious replacements waiting in the wings. Just a casual glance at the county championship division one averages should’ve told Ed Smith that.
Dom Sibley (a natural opener) has scored almost a thousand runs at an average of 56 this summer. And Sam Northeast (a natural 4) has scored a similar amount at an average of 57. One could even move Ben Stokes up to 4, and bring in Ollie Pope, who’s just scored a double hundred for Surrey, at 5 or 6.
The one problem, however, is that the county schedule is all over the place at this time of year. Our domestic cricketers don’t know whether they’re coming and going. August witnessed a staple diet of T20 Blast with the odd championship match thrown in randomly. This has led to perturbation in the ranks with Sam Billings, for example, calling the fixture list “completely brainless”. Imagine what it’s going to be like when Harrison’s Harebrained Have A Hit starts next summer.
Consequently, although in theory Sibley and Northeast might improve the England team, the reality is possibly different. They’ve both played just one red ball game since mid-July and neither scored many runs in those fixtures. Then again, given Ed Smith’s penchant for parachuting white ball specialists into test matches at short notice, it might seem a bit rich for him (of all people) to use this as an excuse for inertia.
My personal interpretation is that Smith is simply someone who has favourites (or fetishes) about certain players. Denly owed his initial selection to this – so perhaps he can’t moan too much – but Roy now seems to be the object of his affection; therefore he’s going to be given another opportunity that he doesn’t really deserve. And in the process Denly has become the new sacrificial lamb.
It’s strange how some players are never given the opportunity to establish themselves despite the management’s mantra that they’d rather give a player one game too many than one game too few. How do the likes of Denly and Moeen Ali (the batsman) fit into this model? Denly has now played 6 test matches in which he’s already batted 2, 3, and 4. And now he’s back to 2. Why?
The case of Moeen Ali is even curiouser. During his 60 tests Mo has batted in the following positions: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9! It’s absolutely ridiculous. Every time England had a hole to fill, and weren’t sure what to do, they’d ask Mo to step into the breach. One wonders what he might have achieved if he’d been allowed to settle. It was a similar story with his old mucker Vikram Solanki who batted in every position in the top 8 in his 50 ODIs. One wonders whether Denly will become the new sacrificial lamb.
The other big news ahead of the test match is that Jimmy Anderson has been ruled out of the series. This is a big blow. Chris Woakes was under par at Edgbaston and Headlingley, and Anderson would’ve formed a lethal seam attack alongside Jofra Archer and Stuart Broad.
What worries me about Jimmy’s injury is that he’d bowled 20 overs on the first day of his Lancs 2nd XI fixture without alarm. The injury then flared up seven overs into his second day in the field. How will England be able to tell if he’s fully fit in the future if the injury can reappear without warning? I just hope that a solid period of rest can sort him out.
Obviously, at 37 years of age, some are speculating that Jimmy will never play for England again. I really hope this isn’t the case. Nobody deserves a send off in front of a packed crowd, and a guard of honour from the opposition, like Anderson.
What’s more, from a purely selfish perspective, I want to watch Anderson bowl in a game knowing that it’s his last hurrah. I’d want to savour the whole thing and soak it up. Personally I can’t remember much about the last spell Jimmy bowled for England. I guess I just took it for granted that he had plenty of miles left in the tank. It would be so disappointing if he was forced to retire and I never got to watch him again. I’d also love to see him bowl in tandem with Jofra.
Finally, a thought about the Aussies ahead of Old Trafford. It’s interesting that Steve Waugh has been recalled / retained to help them recover mentally from their disappointment at Headingley. I also wonder how much of this is for the specific benefit of Steve Smith?
People always remember Waugh as an iron man with ice in this veins. He was as tough as they come. But they forget that in his early years he struggled enormously against the short stuff. He used to take his eye off the ball, thrust his hands out, and get hit on the body a great deal too. And when he tried to fight back the pull shot was occasionally his undoing.
After working on his technique, and possibly doing a little soul searching, Waugh eventually decided to keep the pull and hook shots in his locker. He ducked absolutely everything. And he became rather adept at it. As a result he became extremely difficult to dismiss and his average soared above 50.
One wonders whether Waugh, who also has a great interest in the psychology of cricket, will spend a long time mentoring Smith about the short ball. It will be interesting if Smith decides to become a compulsive ducker too. It’s certainly the strategy I’d adopt if I was him.
It might seem strange to say this about a batsman with over six thousand test runs at an average of 63, but this next test could determine the rest of his career. Will Smith become spooked by short pitched bowling in a similar manner to Stuart Broad? Obviously Smith is a much better batsman than Broad ever was, but he’s still human.
A concussion can really shake a person up. NFL athletes with big careers ahead of them have been known to retire after suffering a single concussion because they conclude it’s just not worth the risk. And after seeing what happened to Phil Hughes, Smith might eventually conclude that he’s had a lucky escape and call it quits while he’s still ahead.
Whilst I’m sure that Smith will battle on, and it wouldn’t surprise me if getting hit my Archer has no affect on his career whatsoever, there’s at least a chance that the incident at Lord’s might lead to a career regression. It’s interesting that he only made 20 odd against Derbyshire whilst those around him were filling their boots.
One thing, however, is for sure. Smith is going to get peppered as soon as he arrives at the crease. Broad and Woakes will also have a go. It won’t just be Archer. And that’s exactly the way it should be.
With Australia looking stronger than England on paper thanks largely to an impressive middle-order axis of Smith and Labuschagne, how the former responds to the inevitable chin music could well decide the Ashes.
Let’s get the ball around Smith’s ‘chops’ – oh dear, the lamb references are back – and see what the bloke’s made of.