So it was all for nothing. Those of us who have kept a close eye on the county championship recently, trying to identify an opening partner for Cook, a solution at number three, a spinner with potential, and perhaps even a reliable wicket-keeper, were wasting their time. In the end the selectors decided that England didn’t need any new players – despite the obvious fact that they do. The only change sees James Vince, who I’ve always seen as a top order player (1-4), replace the retired James Taylor at five. Had Taylor still been available for selection, I doubt we would’ve seen any changes at all.
I find England’s selection for the first test frustrating. Whitaker, Fraser and Newell have done absolutely nothing to solve the team’s problems. Despite winning in South Africa it became obvious that Alex Hales had neither the technique nor temperament to open the batting at test level against world-class opposition. Imagine how badly he would’ve fared if Dale Steyn and Vernon Philander had been fully fit? However, because Hales scored some runs in the ODIs and T20s – a completely different form of the game – the selectors have bottled it and kept the faith. One imagines they hope some easy runs against Sri Lanka will make their initial decision to turn him into a opener look less naïve.
It was also clear after the South Africa tour that Nick Compton, who some see as a county journeyman whose reputation was built on the back of one prolific season at Somerset, wasn’t the answer at three either. Compton simply doesn’t deserve his place. He’s done nothing of particular note at county level for a while – despite Angus Fraser’s insistence that he played on some poor pitches last year – and he looked out of his depth yet again in South Africa. This year he has scored a paltry 100 runs at an average of 20. His inclusion cannot be justified at all.
Personally I think that Compton is a tease. I’m easily seduced by orthodox players who drive pleasantly through the covers, and I like the way Compton remains still at the crease and generally plays straight. However his ceiling is clearly low at this point. What’s more, he played some appalling shots at some very odd times this winter. If his best assets are supposed to be stickability and patience, then why does he have a penchant for the absurd?
I’m afraid that test cricket at the highest level looks beyond Compton. I assume he’ll score a few runs against Sri Lanka then struggle mightily when Pakistan arrive. Retaining him does the long-term prospects of the team no good whatsoever.
Although the selectors can rationalise their ‘faith’ in Hales and Compton (although I see it as a lack of imagination) by claiming it’s too early for the likes of Tom Abell, Alex Lees, Joe Clarke and Daniel Bell Drummond, a home series against Sri Lanka represents an excellence chance to blood some new talent. Once again, however, conservatism and short-termism have triumphed.
I feel a little sorry for county cricket’s openers to be honest. They were challenged to score some early-season runs and force their way into the test side and they all duly obliged: Sam Robson has been prolific, Lyth has had his moments, DBD has exceeded all expectations and even Alex Lees has been impressive. However, all these performances have been ignored. Instead the selectors have kept faith with someone who has looked the poorest of all Cook’s recent opening partners – a batsman who skipped most of the early season matches.
The problem the selectors have of course – and it’s a problem of the ECB’s making – is that nobody can be certain how impartial they are. It will escape no one that Hales and Compton play for Notts and Middlesex respectively. I’d never suggest that men of integrity like Mick Newell and Angus Fraser are deliberately biased, but I do think it’s possible on a subconscious level. Can anyone really be one hundred per cent objective when assessing players they work with every day at county level and who they know well personally.
Even if there is no bias, the problem is one of perception. Let’s not forget Caesar’s wife. Cynics in the Midlands will find it remarkable that Jake Ball (the other new face in the squad), who has never represented England at any level, can suddenly leapfrog Chris Woakes. Ball, of course, also plays for Notts. Meanwhile Warwickshire fans (indeed all cricket fans around the world) might wonder how anyone can think that Compton, a Middlesex stalwart, is a better player than Ian Bell.
The decision to retain Jonny Bairstow as wicket-keeper will also lead to head-scratching around the shires. Although his batting has come a long way, and he’s been in absolutely imperious form with the willow for Yorkshire, Bairstow’s keeping has nothing to do with his batting. He scored plenty of runs in South Africa but looked extremely clumsy and awkward behind the stumps.
Once again, a home series against a struggling Sri Lanka side presented a perfect opportunity to blood a proper keeper – or at least identify one who might turn into a top keeper. Barstow’s keeping has looked so unnatural that some observers wonder whether he has the pure ability to improve. Not every aspiring keeper can do a Matt Prior. Many others fall by the wayside.
The retention of Moeen Ali as the only spinner is also very curious indeed. I’m a Worcestershire man and a singed up member of the Mo fan club, but I also want England to identify a quality spinner – or at least one with the potential to become one – before this winter’s tour of India. We’ve all seen enough of Mo to know his limitations as a bowler at this point. He was excellent against India in his first summer of international cricket but this has proven to be an aberration.
I’m afraid the selectors have failed with this squad because they’re falling into an all too familiar trap: good performances against a poor Sri Lanka side will kid them into thinking that average talents can make it at the highest level. Subsequently, when these players come up against world-class bowlers, they’ll fail as they’ve done in the past. See Ballance, Gary.
I firmly believe a selector’s job is to identify top talent that can succeed against the very best, not muddle through against middling teams with mediocre attacks. Runs against Sri Lanka will prove little. Their attack is on a par with some county teams. It’s what happens when we come up against Pakistan, or Australia next winter, that really counts.
In my opinion, batsmen like Compton and bowlers like Moeen will never be the long-term answer. England should be searching for players who are. Instead we lurch from series to series, trying to win in the short term to ease the pressure on selectors with a mixed record.
England Squad: Cook (capt), Hales, Compton, Root, Vince, Stokes, Bairstow, Ali, Broad, Finn, Anderson, Ball.