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