When England were whitewashed in the 2013/14 Ashes, it was the end of a flowery and sweet smelling chapter in English cricket. It had a lovely beginning, a joyous middle, but when the ending eventually went sour it stank to high heaven. Out went Trott (mentally shot), Swann (gave up), Pietersen (sacked), Prior (injured) and Carberry (too mouthy). The selectors therefore had a very simple, if not entirely easy, brief: find three new batsmen (one of which must be an opener), a new spinner and a new batsman-keeper.
So how has it gone? Badly. That’s how. After our ten wicket thrashing at the hands of Pakistan, a side that looked decent but nothing special until Younus and Wahab stormed back into form, we’re still asking exactly the same questions as we were three summers ago. It’s more than a tad frustrating.
Since the 5ht test at Sydney in 2014, the selectors (with a little help from an interfering board) have done the following: dropped Pietersen and Carberry, even though the side had already lost too many experienced players, and replaced them with a combination of Sam Robson, Adam Lyth, Jonathan Trott (the reborn version), Nick Compton, Alex Hales and Gary Ballance. Not a single one of these decisions has worked out. Hales has actually looked the worst of all the openers we’ve tried yet has been given twice as many tests to prove himself. Go figure.
What’s more, the selectors have compound their errors by dropping Ian Bell – a player who has passed fifty 68 times in test cricket (including 5 times in his last 13 tests) – and put their faith in another elegant, but blatantly inferior batsman, who couldn’t manage fifty once in 11 attempts this summer. I’ll be surprised if James Vince ever plays for England again.
I’ve gone on (and on!) about this many times before, but it’s possible that Bell simply needed a rest after playing cricket for England non-stop for a whole decade. Other players have been given this luxury so why not Bell? The selectors always forget the golden rule of selection in any sport: if you’re going to drop a good player, make sure you’ve got someone better to replace them. Anyone who thinks Vince and Ballance are better than Pietersen and Bell needs their head examined. I this respect, England have gone backwards.
From my opening paragraphs, you might have noticed that there’s a theme to this article. I, James Morgan, am calling out the England selectors for doing a wretched job since January 2014. Nothing they’ve done has made any sense – from persevering with Moeen as a bowler who bats as low as 8 (everyone knows he’s a batting all-rounder and not vice versa) to recalling and then persevering with Nick Compton. I could go on about the absolutely absurd decision to open with Moeen Ali in the UAE, which was even more ridiculous than recalling Jonathan Trott to partner Cook in the West Indies, but my tears would probably short-circuit my keyboard.
To borrow baseball parlance, our selectors seem to swing and miss every single time. Their only moderate successes have been Chris Woakes, who has bolstered an already stacked seam bowling unit (and he was on the scene before Fraser and Newell were around anyway), and Jonny Bairstow, who has learned how to bat at the highest level but still doesn’t look particularly secure as a keeper. Ben Stokes, who is another one of our promising players, was also around before the current selectors forged their axis of awfulness.
The result of all this, I’m afraid, is that England haven’t made much progress since 2014. It would be harsh to suggest that no progress whatsoever has been made because our all-rounders are developing nicely, but we’re still two or three batsmen short of suite, and we still don’t have a decent spinner or keeper. Is it surprising, therefore, that results have been mixed? Here’s a quick reminder …
Sri Lanka (home) lost 0-1
India (home) won 3-1
West Indies (away) drawn 1-1
New Zealand (home) drawn 1-1
Australia (home) won 3-2
Pakistan (away) lost 0-2
South Africa (away) won 2-1
Sri Lanka (home) won 2-0
Pakistan (home) drawn 2-2
Our overall record is won 4, drawn 3, lost 2. One might argue that this is a winning record overall, but six of those series were at home and just three were away. Most test teams win at home. The truth is that England are a decent side with some exciting players but still very much a work in progress. That’s why we’ll still no better than 4th in the rankings.
Of course, those who have followed the England team for years know that poor selection is nothing new. Jimmy, Gus and Mike are just the lastest examples– although I tend to give the latter two less rope because, as full time employees of Middlesex and Notts respectively, there’s a conflict of interest that makes them unsuitable for their role. However, the lexicon of gobbledegook has reached unprecedented levels this summer with the stated aim ‘to give players one game too many rather than one too few’. I would’ve thought that using one’s judgement, and giving players exactly the right amount of chances, would be the best strategy. But that’s just me.
Opportunity after opportunity has been wasted due to short-term thinking. With the winter tours to India and Bangladesh coming up, Adil Rashid could and should have played ahead of Vince this week. Instead, the selectors seem to give their failed experiments chance after chance in the desperate hope they’ll eventually come good – thus making their original judgments look slightly less inept.
For example, it was as clear as day to me after South Africa that Hales had neither the temperament nor technique to survive against top class pace bowling. Exactly the same could be said of Nick Compton. Yet the selectors persevered. They don’t just give players one game too many; they give them whole series too many.
What’s more, after the early season hype that places were up for grabs – remember all those ‘county watch’ summaries we did – runs in county cricket ended up meaning sod all. Hales was retained, despite taking a break at the beginning of the season and hardly playing for Notts; Compton was retained despite hardly reaching double figures for Middlesex; and when Gary Ballance was called up for the Pakistan series he averaged just over 30 for Yorkshire.
All the runs scored by the likes of Scott Borthwick, James Hildreth, Nick Gubbins, Ben Duckett, Sam North-East, Tom Westley and even Daniel Bell-Drummond (all of whom average 50 or more in the championship this summer) counted for dilly squat. Instead the selectors backed Ballance (average 34) and Vince (39). Explain that one?
I’m not saying that county runs mean everything by the way. In the past, England got by thanks to wise old sages like Duncan Fletcher identifying something special in the likes of Marcus Trescothick and Michael Vaughan. The problem we’ve got now is that our new guru, Trevor Bayliss, is too busy to watch county cricket; therefore judgements are left in the hands of guys like Whitaker and Fraser – both good, solid men, but I’ve never been convinced that either of them has a particularly high cricket IQ.
I don’t like bashing Gus, as he was one of my heroes back in the 90s, but he was a pretty dreary pundit before getting back into cricket. He rarely said or wrote anything that made you think – not in the way that someone like Mike Atherton or even Nasser Hussain do. What a shame that the best analytical minds are currently working in the media and are therefore precluded from being selectors.
What’s more, because Gus and Newell are attached to counties, they can’t get around the country as much as selectors should (although I hear that they try their best). Instead they’re often reliant on second hand information: talking to other coaches and senior players whispering into their ears. Is it any surprise they seem to have a preference for Notts and Middlesex players? These are the players they watch more than any others. They probably feel like ‘safe’ choices. When in doubt, I’m guessing they go back to what they know. What are the odds on Dawid Malan being the next middle-order batsman to be handed a test debut?
What I’m saying is that the current selection system – whether it’s the methodologies, the practicalities, or perhaps even the specific personalities involved – simply isn’t working. The selectors simply aren’t unearthing good international players (or even ones that show some promise). They’re either backing new batsmen that clearly aren’t up to it, or going back to players that never had ‘it’ in the first place.
I appreciate that selection isn’t an exact science. It’s difficult and not every decision is going to work out. However, as England fans all we ask is that some of them work out.
This summer all four of the big decisions – Hales, Compton, Vince and Ballance – have backfired. If you asked a monkey to pick four of the players mentioned above (the guys averaging over 50 in the championship) at random, it couldn’t have done any worse. One or two of them might even have panned out.
Look out James, Gus and Mick, Bubbles will be after your job.