If we were to estimate the number of newspaper column inches devoted to selection over the years, the accumulated distance would likely be enough to circle the equator of Jupiter several times and we’d still have enough left for a thinly-veiled dig at the foibles of every selection supremo the ECB have thrown at us. Selection, it seems, is an inexact science, at the whims of form, fitness, funkiness, flakiness, flunkies and whatever the f*** they were smoking at the time.
I started following English cricket in 1990, during a golden summer where the runs flowed, the bowlers toiled and Graham Gooch’s Stuart Surridge bat was flaying short deliveries to every boundary in Christendom. If there has been one constant during the myriad downs and occasional ups of my time supporting (or begrudgingly tolerating) the England team, it’s that every now and then a selection so bonkers, controversial or ridiculous would pop up, that you’d have to wonder whether everyone involved had temporarily mislaid their marbles.
With that in mind, I decided to document some of the stranger choices from my period as a fan, and try to ascertain why the individual in question was chosen (or not chosen as the case may be), and – purely for my own amusement in this particular case – try to give the outlandishness of the selection a score out of ten on the patented Ed Smith Genius-o-meter. Mr Smith is, after all, the man who has somehow managed to combine the selectorial flair of Dexter, Illingworth, Graveney, Lloyd and Screaming Lord Sutch, whilst being accompanied by James his faithful shoe-shine boy.
A score of one would represent a selection that if you squinted a bit and maybe had a couple of beers, you’d shrug your shoulders and consider it worth a shot. Meanwhile a score of ten would be akin to following cricket exclusively via Michael Vaughan’s Twitter feed whilst injecting ten pints of plutonium into your eyeballs.
What are the selection criteria for my selection criteria? It could certainly be argued that players such as Gavin Hamilton, Mike Smith and Simon Brown had disappointing single-Test careers. I would suggest, however, that each of them was an understandable selection at the time.
Hamilton had been Scotland’s stand-out player at the World Cup in 1999 and had performed well for Yorkshire, whilst Smith and Brown were the standout county championship bowlers in 1997 and 1996 respectively. Likewise, some players were picked on the back of outstanding natural talent (Mark Lathwell, Hollioake x 2, the first twenty or so goes at Mark Ramprakash) or outstanding county form (Alan Wells, then Ian Salisbury who took 87 wickets in 1992). These decisions – whilst unsuccessful – with the benefit of hindsight can be understood.
Instead, I intend to cover decisions that caused much debate and raising of the eyebrows. There are certain selection fads that English cricket always seems destined to focus on every ten years or so. The quest for ‘The New Botham’ dominated much of the 90’s. ‘The Mystery Spinner’ was the most sought-after piece of the jigsaw ever since Shane Warne fizzed a leg break into Mike Gatting’s stumps at Old Trafford. And more recently ‘The Next Alastair Cook’ quest has dominated proceedings.
Another factor worth considering is the particular style of each selector, and occasionally the preferences of coach and captain. Some of the most powerful entities in English cricket had their own quirks and foibles …
Three games for Yorkshire was proof positive to Raymond Illingworth that a player was overdue an England call-up, usually at the expense of Devon Malcolm or Robin Smith. Duncan Fletcher had a notable speed-gun obsession during his days as England coach and whilst captain Alec Stewart didn’t necessarily believe that every single active county championship bowler was better than Andy Caddick, he’d be damned if he wouldn’t give them all a go before giving big ears a recall.
With that hefty introduction out of the way, this first article will cover a grab-bag of selections which all fall under the same criteria: ‘The Piece Of Extra Luggage England Take On Tour’ – aka, the third spinners England occasionally take to the subcontinent. There’s also a special mention for Mason Crane who travelled down under.
Let’s start with the doo(sra)sy Alex Loudon who was a surprising pick for England’s 2005 tour to Pakistan. Much of the discussion focussed on his ability to bowl a doosra. However, he saw no action on the tour and ended up retiring from cricket less than two years later. He popped up a few years later in the papers for apparently dating Pippa Middleton and now works for an investment firm. Loudon was, for the most part, a beneficiary of then-coach Duncan Fletcher’s insistence on spinners being able to contribute with bat and ball, and thus scores a respectable five out of ten on the Ed Smith-o-meter.
Fletcher was always a man more likely to double-down than admit he was wrong, so for the second of England’s tours that winter to India, Loudon’s services were dispensed with and, after Ashley Giles had to withdraw from the tour, England departed these shores with an unlikely spin trio of Shaun Udal, Monty Panesar and Ian Blackwell.
The selections of Udal and Panesar did raise eyebrows – the former was getting on a bit (or a lot) whilst the latter didn’t exactly fit into Fletcher’s idea of what role a spin bowler should perform. However, said eyebrows resided in orbit when the third of this trio received his call up. It soon became obvious that you couldn’t hide Blackwell’s lack of quality even if you covered him in a grass-covered tarpaulin. Fletcher’s insistence on his squad being physically fit also made Blackwell an odd choice. He scored four runs in his only Test and manages a solid seven out of ten Eds here.
Another cricketer who ended up retiring at a young age was Zafar Ansari. One of the beneficiaries of Alec Stewart’s championing of everyone at Surrey for a Test spot, Ansari edged out the Surrey groundskeeper and canteen manager for a spot on the 2015 tour to the UAE. Sadly, however, injury resulted in him being replaced by Blackwell’s body-double Samit Patel.
Fortunately for Zafar he wasn’t quite a one-tour wonder. He was back for England’s tour to Bangladesh and India the following year. A promising debut innings of 32 was the highlight of his brief career and he retired from cricket less than a year later. It’s hard to describe just how poor the spinning reserves were at the time, so Zafar only merits a four out of ten for zaniness.
The time between Blackwell and Ansari was a relative oasis of calm for England, with two good spinners in the shape of Panesar and Swann doing the majority of the heavy lifting, with the worthy James Tredwell occasionally being drafted in to cover. Things went spectacularly wrong in the spin department (amongst others) in the 13-14 Ashes series though.
Graeme Swann, suffering from a debilitating condition in his bowling average, controversially quit the tour halfway through, and with Monty answering the Aussie’s short ball barrage with a relentless barrage of his own (sadly about 50mph slower than required) it was decided that Scott Borthwick would be drafted into the firing line for the 5th Test. Nowhere near Test standard with bat or ball, his selection ahead of Panesar or Tredwell was a truly mind-boggling one that merits a good nine out of ten on our special scale.
Nowadays England rarely travel without a sacrificial leg-spinner, and the 2017-18 Ashes saw Mason Crane taken along “for the experience”. Someone clearly forgot to include the word “chastening” when explaining it thusly.
As is often the case when it comes to England tours, disastrous form, confidence as fragile as a hairpiece in a hurricane, and a ritual kerb-stomping from the sportsmanlike Aussies saw young Mason thrown in for a character-building and utterly predictable ritual destruction of his fledgling career (he was 20 years old at the time). He bowled a Jofra-esque 48 overs in an innings and recorded a Salisbury-esque analysis of 1/193 as Joe Root’s captaincy showed all its usual nuance. Jesus Joe, even Alistair gave Simon Kerrigan a break.
Hopefully young Mason will come again, as he has time on his side. Picking him on the tour was a seven out ten Eds decision, but actually playing him against a rampant Aussie side lifts it up to a nine.
So there we have it, a sprinkling of sinful spin selections from overseas tours. The eagle-eyed amongst you will note the glaring omission of any reference to the ill-fated 1992-93 tour of India, which I intend to cover in a more in-depth and serious way in the next piece in the series.
I have always been morbidly fascinated with this tour (in the same way some people have an obsession with serial killers). It led to votes of no-confidence being debated at the MCC, rebel tourists and net bowlers, dodgy prawns, facial hair enquiries, iconic run-outs, the worst dropped catch in history (blood money must make the hands slippery) and a specialist batsman topping the English bowler charts.
That tour of India was truly glorious stuff. And it all started with some unbelievably dodgy selections.