Selection Matters

Today we have a guest post from Gareth Fitzgerald. You won’t be surprised to learn that I’m quite sympathetic to his views. It’s a relief to know that I’m not howling into the wind alone …

Last November Rob Smyth from the Guardian wrote a piece lauding the selection merits of Ed Smith. Paul Newman, the Daily Mail’s cricket writer had written a puff piece on Ed’s “left-field” approach two months earlier. Nasser Hussain in the same rag had similarly espoused Smith’s brilliance. The likes of Bob Willis, Dominic Cork, Alec Stewart and David Lloyd had waxed lyrical about the brilliance of Mr Smith, while Michael Vaughan and Phil Tufnell pointed out on 5 Live that he hadn’t put a foot wrong and should be marked 10 out of 10 for his start in the job as England selector.

Now far be it for me – a middle-aged cricket obsessive laid up with a bad back and a desire to see England play well – to disagree with such luminaries of the cricketing media but purely for the purpose of debate, I decided to examine all of Ed’s picks, and the rationale behind said picks, and decide whether each has been the blinding success the experts would have us believe. I will examine each selection and decide whether it’s a HIT or a MISS from our Beloved Leader.

Smith’s first Test squad was named for the two match series against Pakistan in May of last year and he brought two faces into the fold, one familiar, one not. Before a ball was bowled Ed was already popular with some fans for dispensing with the services of Cover-Drives’ James Vince, a little bit unfairly in my opinion (whisper it) after Vince had scored 76 in his last Test innings.

Jos Buttler was the first beneficiary of Ed’s “outside the box” thinking. Fresh off a stunning IPL, Buttler was picked in that most curious of roles, the ‘luxury number seven batsman’ spot. Buttler quickly found his groove with half-centuries in both matches of a drawn series, and a maiden hundred (the churlish may point out in a lost cause) followed against India. Since then Jos has been one of England’s more consistent batsman without really hitting those heights again, even as circumstances have caused him to lose the luxury tag and inch up the order (he’s currently at five). It remains to be seen if the responsibility of batting higher inhibits him. He’s also dropped a fair few catches in the slips since his return. For all of that though, I feel you have to rate this one as a success for Ed Smith. Verdict – HIT.

The other name in Ed’s first squad was Dom Bess the young Somerset spinner, the beneficiary of Jack Leach being injured and Moeen Ali out of form. Bess scored a fifty on debut and followed it up with 49 as nightwatchman in the following Test, and belatedly made his mark with the ball by taking 3 for 33 in Pakistan’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it second innings of the second Test. Bess showed promise with the bat, but ultimately looked innocuous in the role (spinner) that he was picked for. This may well become a theme as we continue down the list. Verdict – MISS.

After losing the first Test to Pakistan, Ed had seen enough of Mark Stoneman and decided it was time to swing the axe. Out went the Surrey opener and in came specialist fielder Keaton Jennings. Despite looking ill-at-ease during his first stint, Jennings was recalled on the basis of…well… being a nice lad. He was garbage, and Ed’s defence of him became quite peculiar, with his winter selection being based on an argument of “well he hasn’t scored any runs but neither has anyone else” which was factually accurate if you ignored all the people who had scored runs. One would imagine that Vince and Stoneman may have uttered gasps of disbelief at that particular one.

Young Keaton was excellent in the dressing room we were informed, and he really must have been, judging by the amount of time he spent in there. Jennings did manage to score a hundred against Sri Lanka, and looks a good player of spin, but seems utterly ill-at-ease with half decent seam bowling. He was dropped for the latest Test against the West Indies, even though there was no reserve opener in the squad. Verdict – MISS.

Another debutant for the second Test was Sam Curran, the young Surrey player being the beneficiary of a conflicting High Court appointment for England’s star all-rounder. Curran has (in the opinion of this author) become somewhat of a microcosm for the problems facing England in their current Test-playing guise. Much like Bess before him, Curran impressed hugely with his batting technique and temperament, and his bowling proved…functional at times. Unfortunately his bowling speed has been an issue away from home and England need to disadvantage themselves in other areas to mask his weaknesses. You still feel the future is bright for the young man. Verdict – HIT, albeit with mounting reservations.

If there was one selection that proved uniformly unpopular across the board of the ECB’s pet journos, it was that of Mike Selvey’s second-favourite cricketer Adil Rashid. Intriguingly, the majority of the opprobrium spouted by journalists wasn’t directed at the selection supremo himself, but rather at the player.

Rashid pretty much performed as one would expect Adil Rashid to perform, providing no control but picking up a few wickets here and there. He played his part in the win in Sri Lanka, but an expensive and ineffective first Test in the West Indies saw him dropped, possibly for the final time in a Test career that has flickered on occasion but suffered from a combination of the player’s own inadequacies, a hostile media, unsympathetic captaincy (in red-ball cricket at least) and the traditional English misunderstanding of leg-spin. Verdict – MISS.

The second Test match against India was when Ed had seen enough of the leaden-footed Dawid Malan. Once again he turned to both youth and Surrey for his replacement, as batting prodigy Ollie Pope was selected to shore up the middle order. Pope was a surprising selection with many fancying Joe Clarke to be next cab off the rank.

Pope struck a promising 28 on his first knock, which the media went a tad overboard in their praise of (the fact perennial nearly-man Chris Woakes struck England’s first hundred of the summer in this match went almost unnoticed). A quiet second Test followed for Pope, before he was quietly dispensed with. Pope did make selection for the touring squad of Sri Lanka, however he was released to join up with the Lions after the first Test. Verdict – MISS.

The eagle-eyed amongst you may have noticed that Alistair Cook quietly and without fanfare retired after the Oval Test against India, meaning a new opening batsman was required for the winter tours. An intoxicating combination of weight of county runs and an absence of any other candidates proved irresistible to Ed and Rory Burns was given the job.

Burns, like many candidates before him (Stoneman, Robson, Carberry to name but three) has provided some promising innings alongside some low scores. He has not been an unqualified success in the role, early days though it may yet be. At this point it feels like any opening batsman who puts a run of county scores together may stand a chance ahead of the Ashes. Verdict – MISS, although he still has a chance to nail down the spot.

The Sri Lankan tour also provided ample opportunity for Jack Leach to resume a Test career that had been cut short by a thumb injury. Despite being the least heralded of England’s spin trio ahead of the series, Leach bowled with control, discipline and guile, contributing eighteen wickets over three tests as England achieved an impressive 3-0 series victory.

Young Jack was rewarded by immediately being dropped for the West Indies series, as his lack of skill with the bat proved reason for Ali and Rashid to be picked ahead of him. England’s obsession with bits and pieces cricketers (or “Total Cricket” as the ECB cheerleaders sickeningly call it) therefore continues to impede the long-term progression of the team. Verdict – HIT, but he may not actually play much.

With Burns and Leach both selections that ranked high on the Bleeding Obvious scale, Ed’s insatiable need to grab some headlines resulted in one of his most baffling selections yet: Joe Denly. This long forgotten man of Kent was selected for both winter tours, ostensibly as an option for number 3 and to provide some leg spin.

A jittery start to the tour saw him slip out of contention as first Moeen Ali and then Jonny Bairstow were tried in the number three slot. Denly hung around, providing no real competition for places until Jenning’s sheer uselessness left England in the position of having to put a Division 2 middle-order batsman with a modest record in as an opener against a fired up West Indies team. To the surprise of absolutely no-one Denly struggled in his first game. I wish him well, but this selection was as odd as they come. Verdict – MISS.

Those are the major selections Ed has made in his time as Chief Selector, although there have been other team changes. Ben Foakes, whilst hailed as a selection masterstroke wasn’t actually named in any of the winter tour squads; therefore we can’t really call him an Ed Smith selection success. Meanwhile Moeen Ali continues to frustrate. He was rather amusingly re-selected as a spinner on the back of a county double-hundred – which encapsulates England’s current approach in a nutshell.

Ed himself has said that it’s his policy to pick the best eleven all-round cricketers and that the actual order is at the discretion of the coach and captain. But this worries me slightly. The best teams always have regular personnel in defined positions in the batting order. If we were to consider the state of the England team after Ed had taken over, the list of priorities were reasonably obvious.

  1. Find at least one new opening batsman. This of course was muddied somewhat by Cook retiring at the end of last summer, but Ed gave Stoneman one Test, Jennings ten, Burns has just completed his fifth, and Denly his first. None have been a success (nor was Cook in the seven live games he played).
  2. Nail down the number three spot. Ed’s first action as a selector was to unceremoniously dump second slip’s favourite batsman, James Vince. Joe Root started the summer at number three, before being replaced by Moeen Ali and then Jonny Bairstow. Bairstow managed a hundred on his first go in Sri Lanka, however he gets bowled far too often to be a top class number three. Time will tell if he proves to be the man there (spoilers – he wont).
  3. Find a new spinner following Moeen’s Ashes disaster. As possible replacements for Moeen, Ed has tried four players – Bess, Rashid, Moeen himself and Leach. Of those, Leach easily has the best record, with 20 wickets at 24.9. However, Mo remains in possession despite rapidly diminishing returns with the bat. Is he a better pure bowler than Leach?

Now a lot of the afore-mentioned discussion is just my opinion, albeit one based on results and stats in some areas, but the end result does not paint Ed’s time in charge as favourably as most media outlets. The England team are still overly reliant on Anderson and Broad, if Root doesn’t fire the batting order is unlikely to, and they still all seem to be having a “who can get out playing the daftest shot” competition (Moeen has an almost insurmountable lead thus far).

Meanwhile Ben Stokes, despite assurances on his world class all-rounder status from every pundit, averages below 25 with the bat since his return from his personal troubles. What’s more, the emergence of Ben Foakes has muddied the waters on Buttler and Bairstow’s long-term roles. So where is the joined up thinking?

The next few months will prove crucial for Ed. His honeymoon period will probably extend for a while longer as white ball cricket takes precedence for the start of the summer. England of course have a very settled ODI side. But English cricket fans, for the most part, value the Ashes above all else. And at the moment success in the Ashes looks reliant on a combination of Anderson, Broad and a host of plucky lower-order partnerships featuring Curran, Woakes, Foakes and Moeen.

It will be interesting to see if Ed sticks by his principles of selecting on all-round ability, a preference for youth, a wish to be perceived as ‘funky’ (blame Shane Warne for introducing that term into the cricketing lexicon), and a healthy amount of optimistic guesswork. If he does not, and starts to lean towards the more pragmatic, or randomly picking the white ball darling of the moment (I think it’s currently Jason Roy, but Jofra Archer would be a very Ed Smith decision) then the media reaction that follows may not be as positive.

The inclusion of luxury players (a term Smith himself has used) might well come under the spotlight. Buttler’s license to counter-attack at seven was described by Ed as a bold selection due to presence of a “world-class all-rounder” at six. If it was Stokes he was referring to (batting average of 24.87 since his return to the side) then his logic is somewhat flawed.

However, if Jos is striding to the wicket with England at 80-5 (or 40-3 now that he is at five) then the license to counter-attack is simply not there, and England find themselves relying on a mercurial talent with a grand total of five red-ball hundred over 93 first-class games. Nobody disputes Buttler’s talent, merely the regularity of his output.

Similarly for Rashid, a leg-spinner is often deemed as a luxury option. If England were regularly posting totals of 400, he would be a logical inclusion. They aren’t and he isn’t. It doesn’t help that his captain shows no understanding of the role of a leg-spinner, or the need for trust (see also Morgan, Eoin).

The luxury options illustrate that Ed has focused on being funky and innovative without addressing the problem areas. Before his appointment we already had a number seven biffing some decent lower order cameos (in fact we had several), plus a spinner who took wickets but couldn’t contain the opposition. We also had several bowlers who could contribute plucky batting cameos but were questionable inclusions as bowlers alone. All Ed has really done is add to those options. If he was redecorating his house it would have splendid chandeliers but alas no windows or running water.

For all the shots I’ve taken at Ed thus far throughout this piece, I do think he is somewhat hamstrung though. The ECB has devalued county cricket to the point that a lot of his decisions *have* to be predicated on a certain amount of guesswork. With first-class cricket being played in April, May and September, the art of red-ball batting has almost certainly been lost. Some of Ed’s youthful picks such as Pope and Curran will hopefully bounce back from disappointment and avoid the fate of other ‘picked-too-soon’ cricketers such as Chris Schofield ans Mark Lathwell.

Make no mistake – Ed has a tough job to do. It’s entirely possible that his initial successes were not as game-changing as they were being portrayed, and his current difficulties are not as insurmountable as they seem. Ed Smith is, as we are frequently reminded, a very intelligent man. It therefore strikes me as a surprise that, publicly at least, he seems to offer no long-term plan when it comes towards building a successful Test side for England.

At the time of writing England have just lost the second Test to the West Indies. Kemar Roach having taken eight wickets. Roach is a specialist bowler, and a very capable one at that, but in his 50 Test matches he has a highest batting score of 41. I cannot help but think this shabby record in his secondary discipline would render him ineligible for selection under England’s current criteria. And that’s a real shame, because you still have to take twenty wickets to win a Test match. And nothing’s going to change that.

Gareth Fitzgerald



  • Really interesting article.
    I have my fears about Ed, not just his alleged plagiarism…
    He said Malan was a horses for courses player, yet, he’s not been seen since on a tour, I think he’d rather have a glamour pick (like Rashid) that goes wrong than a safe pick – Leach which doesn’t have people praising him.

    How can Denly be the 3rd best opener in England?? If you knew Keaton was getting just two innings to prove himself, surely your spare batsman is an opener for the future?

  • The English obsession with the supposed contribution of management is bizarre. Steve James even wrote a whole book about them, ‘The Plan’, and put all the success of the noughties down to them. They’ve even be trumpeting today the crucial contribution of an English batting coach – the trouble is Toby Radford is working for the West Indies.

    The problem is too many managers and a desperate attempt to justify their existence. Why does English cricket need a Director and a Chairman of Selectors? They seem like two part-time jobs. All I want from a Chairman of Selectors is that they don’t leave out someone who bloody obviously should have been selected and then to forget about them. Still, if they get ridiculously puffed up when there’s a little success then they should be shot down when there’s a disaster.

    And if they end up recalling Vince as an opener for the Ashes, then Smith’s record really will have gone full circle….

  • Extremely interesting article and much of it I agree with. Ed Smith’s Wildesque infatuation with young swashbuckling cricketers has proved his, and England’s, undoing. I’m all for blooding promising young cricketers but to create a strong England Test team, they have to show more than promise.

    The One-Day and T20 teams select themselves. If they can avoid the customary slip-up against a weaker side, they should at least make the final with Morgan, Root, Bairstow, Roy, Hales, Stokes, Buttler, Moeen, Rashid, Willey, Woakes, Stone (if available, otherwise Wood), Plunkett, Jordan and Archer.

    As for the Test team, it is largely made up of all-rounders and wicket-keepers. They must find another one or even two openers before the Ashes. Otherwise, we risk the usual poor start and middle-order pressure. They need to decide whether Bairstow is a number three or a number 6 batsman / wicket-keeper. Root will not be moved from four, although his current form might suggest otherwise. Stokes is an all-rounder and not a top order batsman, He should bat 7.

    The spin department looks fine for the moment and I would keep an eye on Danny Briggs and Amar Virdi but, Broad and Anderson aside, the fast bowling cupboard looks bare. Yes, Wood is fast but is one-dimensional. Stone looks promising but his fitness is a worry. Woakes is decent but too often overlooked in preference for of Smith’s ‘wildcards’.

    Who else is there? Craig Overton and Jamie Porter have been unlucky not to have had good runs, then there’s the Lions bowling attack of Bailey and Mahmood and Jamie Overton, which recent results would suggest is average. So, at the moment my team would like this.

    1. Rory Burns
    2. ?
    3. ?
    4. Joe Root
    5. Jonny Bairstow
    6. Ben Stokes
    7. Moeen Ali
    8. Chris Woakes
    9. Stuart Broad
    10. Jack Leach
    11. James Anderson

    Who would I try at 2 and 3? Max Holden, Alex Davies, Tom Kohler-Cadmore, Sam Hain and Joe Clarke all have something to offer but it’s a big step up to Test cricket. promise. Malan, Pope and Vince were the unlucky victims of Smith’s lust for fresh-faced urchins like Curran.

    Curran is undoubtedly the future of England cricket but we need to focus on the present. He can bat and will make a fine 5 or 6. His lack of bowling speed relies too heavily on conditions. Without swing, he is a no more than a County trundler. So however enthusiastic and promising he is, I would send him back to County cricket to gain experience and a yard or two.

    • That’s starting to look like a proper XI to me. The management can choose whether they need a second spinner (Moeen) or Foakes. The problem is where we’re going to find that elusive 2 & 3 batsmen.

      • The irony here, of course, is that if a second spinner is required, you’d really want England’s best gloveman behind the stumps!

  • I think you’re being unfair on Ed Smith, not giving him credit for his foresight in picking back-up wicket-keepers.

    In many test teams, a wicket-keeper suffering an injury partway through a match would be a big problem. But when this very thing happened in England’s most recent match, a spare wicket-keeper was already available to seamlessly take over. With another spare also available, should the situation arise.

    What foresight to make such provision!

    All England need to do is hope for a spate of wicket-keeper injuries or mysterious illnesses, knowing that they are the only team so prepared to handle the situation …

    • Spot on. In fact, I think it’s only a matter of time until England call up Alex Davies. We clearly need a 4th keeper in the XI just in case. And Joe Clarke can keep too. So there’s a brilliant opportunity for a 5th keeper, which really will cover all bases ;-)

  • Al Davies has the best cricketing brain of the Millennials. He is spikey and will ruffle feathers ( a good thing ). He started life as a natural No 3, but not since aged 15 has he been free to play his own game and consistently in that position. The ECB forced him into audacious attacking from the get go. (And will have told Lancs to keep him ‘on that message’. He would need to be told: ‘your job is to bat long and disrupt the opposition not with all-out-attack but with your ability to wind them up by being YOU’. Someone should burn his gloves. It would do his knees good. And clear his mind for the prime task of wearing down the opposition.

  • Very good piece. Well thought out. Heck I’m not a expert just a long term cricket watcher so for what it’s worth here’s my take:

    The problem is that if you are going to play say just 3 of Bairstow, Butler, Ali, Stokes and Curran you effectively have 3 to 5 one day number 7’s batting in the wrong positions. Its all very well if we are 200/4, then any of these biffers have a licence to hit, basically they do not seem to want to or are unable to change their game or mindset for Test cricket. Now this has worked up to recently because we have been able to hit ourselves out of trouble, but it won’t work all the time as the current debacle has glaringly shown.

    Woakes is potentially I think a better Test batsman than any of the above and far better than a number 8. There is no point if you are going to play Foakes, batting him down the order, he is a 4 day batsman as anyone watching County Cricket will know. He is also by a mile the best keeper.

    There are two tests, one a 4 day test against Ireland, before the Ashes. I don’t think there is time now to start introducing new batsmen in the top 5 to see how good or bad they are. But you can’t leave it as it is. Some people are saying Roy. No because its yet another number 7. Roy 3 years ago when he regularly batted 5 for Surrey in the CC is another matter, and I would take that Roy before any of our current number 7’s. But he isn’t, too much T20. If Sam Curran plays its no good batting him with the tail at 9 so he has to bat 7/8. Call in the experienced old guard in the short term at the top, Bell and for Christ’s sake give Hildreth a go, and I’d add Pope to the squad.

    As for the bowling if you are just going to add Woakes you still have no real pace in the attack. The Aussies have 3 quicks faster than us plus a guy called Richardson who looks a really good seamer. I think we have to take a punt here with either Archer, Stone or Jamie Overton in the squad, maybe two of them. Should, and I really hope not, Anderson get injured I reckon Porter, Tom Curran or Craig Overton as a replacement. Personally and I know many will disagree, I think Broad is on his sell by date and is too hit and miss these days so he’s not in my first choice team.

    Burns, Hildreth, Bell, Root, Foakes, Woakes, Stokes (just), Sam Curran, Stone or Archer or J Overton, Leach, Anderson

    In the squad: Pope, Broad, Denley.

    Long term of course the whole structure of English Cricket needs a complete rethink and restructure from the top (ECB aghh) down.

  • I’m going to add a second spinner to my squad just in case: Amir Virdi, young but very promising. Of course Root could bowl if necessary. He was actually better than Rashid.

  • If selecting Leach was a hit, shouldn’t not selecting him, while still selecting Rashid and Moeen in front of him, turn it into a miss?

  • Hameed
    Bairstow (wk)

    Simply because everyone seems to want Bairstow to wicket keep for some reason..


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