We have a problem. England only have nine test class cricketers. Therefore one could argue that it doesn’t really matter which bodies make up the broader squad of 16. The selectors might as well have picked random names out of a hat. After all, these squad fillers aren’t particularly likely to score any runs or take any wickets. They might as well have picked the seven best fielders in the country … or the seven guys that make the best cuppa.
Having said that, the selectors’ job is to unearth diamonds in the rough, and to use their esteemed judgement (ha!) to identify which unheralded players might just have what it takes at the highest level. Duncan Fletcher used to be good at this. Unfortunately, Whitaker, Fraser and Newell have been always been bloody awful at it.
England’s selectors have been throwing crap at the wall and hoping some of it will stick for years. We’ve been through the likes of Carberry, Lyth, Robson, Ballance, Vince, Ballance again, Duckett, Westley, Ballance yet again, Malan, and now they’ve gone back to Vince and, you guessed it, Gary bloody Ballance. The Yorkshire skipper has had more lives that Graeme Swann’s cat. It sure helps when you’re mates with the skipper, eh.
As you can probably tell, I’m completely against recalling Ballance and Vince. And I sense that I’m firmly in the majority on this one. Neither player has shown the slightest indication they’ll turn into a test class batsman in the past, and neither of them has changed the way they play when they’ve been out of the team. Basically they’re known failures. And giving them yet another go shows an abysmal lack of imagination.
Obviously it’s easy to snipe from the outside without suggesting alternatives names, so I’m going to throw a couple out there. What about Liam Livingstone, who’s made of the right stuff and averaged 45 in division one this year (Vince averaged a typically underwhelming 35)? And what about Sam Northeast? At least these guys haven’t been found wanting in the past. The Aussies might even have to do a little homework on them. When it comes to Vince and particularly Ballance, every bowler in the world knows how to get them out.
The logic of selecting Vince in particular grinds my gears. Apparently Whitaker and Co think he’s got the kind of game that might suit Australia. You ‘effing what? Just because he drives a bit like Michael Vaughan doesn’t mean he’s the same player. Vince hasn’t looked convincing for England outside off-stump, and he hasn’t shown a particularly watertight back-foot game either … you know, the kind that’s quite important on Australian wickets. Vince has done nothing, absolutely nothing, domestically to justify a recall and his selection smacks of randomness.
I wonder what Tom Westley makes of it all? The Essex batsman’s tendency to play through the legside was exposed all summer on pitches that offered assistance to the bowlers. If anyone was likely to prosper in Australian conditions, when it doesn’t swing much, it was Westley not Vince. Steve Smith used to have (and still does to some extent) a penchant for playing through the legside but it doesn’t seem to bother him too much on true Aussie pitches with a kookaburra ball. I’m not saying I would’ve taken Westley by the way; I’m just pointing out the flawed logic.
Fortunately the rest of the squad isn’t too bad. Well, it’s bad in terms of proven quality, but you can’t fault the selectors too much when they’re blindly groping inside an empty cupboard in the dark. Jake Ball and Craig Overton aren’t bad bowlers I guess – although they’re unlikely to give the Aussies too many sleepless nights. At least the latter has had a stellar season for Somerset. It’s just a shame that he doesn’t possess his brother’s pace.
Talking of pace, it’s the one thing this England squad sorely lacks. Again you can’t blame the selectors too much – there wasn’t a stand out pace bowler in the running other than the extremely green George Garton – but that won’t stop our lack of speed and aggression becoming a rather prominent Achilles heel. Mitchell Johnson absolutely destroyed us last time out, and the likes of Starc and Cummings will be gunning for us this time. What a shame we won’t be able to fight fire with fire. It doesn’t bode well.
The other two somewhat controversial selections in the squad were Mason Crane and Ben Foakes. Let’s start with the latter … which gives me less opportunity to despair. Basically it’s a good thing that England have picked the best pure keeper in the country. It gives us another option if we don’t want to pick six bowlers (or pick a further batsman that’s unlikely to score runs anyway) and I suspect we’ll need to take every chance we get.
Moving onto Crane I’m not sure what to make of his selection. One could argue that he did well down under last winter (in which he became the first overseas player to represent New South Wales since Rogue Elephant Imran Khan) and that he’s a bowler with an extraordinarily high ceiling. One could even argue with legitimacy that leg-spinners tend to do better than finger spinners down under (unless your name is Yasir Shah) and that Crane adds a little magic dust or x-factor to the squad.
Alternatively one could say that Crane’s inclusion smacks of complete desperation. This is, after all, a man (or perhaps I should say boy) who’s taken just 70 first class wickets at an average in excess of 40. Does the names Chris Schofield, or even Ian Salisbury, ring a bell?
I’ve seen Crane bowl a few times but he didn’t look anywhere near the finished article. And how could he be? He’s just 20 years of age. The selectors don’t want to pick Jack Leach in case he gets ruined like Simon Kerrigan, and yet they’re perfectly happy to throw a fledgling leggie to the wolves instead. Personally I just don’t see the logic.
I guess we’ll just have to pray that Whitaker, Newell and Fraser have got something right for a change. The law of averages suggests they’ll make a good selection eventually, and so let’s hope that Crane is the one. I certainly don’t want us to rely exclusively on Moeen Ali after what happened to Swann last time we toured down under. English off-spinners tend to go the distance in Australia.
The final person I’d like to talk about is Ben Stokes. Oh Ben what have you done? The last thing we needed before the plane leaves is controversy. Ashes tours that begin with farce and calamity usually end in farce and calamity. We’ve already had an unfortunate injury to TRJ. If Stokes has broken his hand on someone’s face (something that’s unsubstantiated I should add) and doesn’t recover in time then England’s Ashes hopes might very well be broken too.
I don’t believe, by the way, that England should ban Stokes for what he’s done. It’s worth remembering that Ricky Ponting got into a fight in a Sydney bar during the 1998/99 Ashes tour. He was left out of the team while the ACB investigated the incident but was back playing within ten days. Those who want to strip Stokes of the vice-captaincy might want to remember that Punter became a very distinguished Australia captain not long afterwards.
The circumstances with Stokes are probably somewhat different – we don’t yet know all the facts or whether he’ll be charged – but it’s worth remembering that mavericks do sometimes get into bother off the field. Luckily they win games on the field. And England will need all the match winners they’ve got this winter.