In ninety one days’ time England return to test cricket, against Sri Lanka at Lord’s. But who on earth will be in the team? Never before – except after a world war, perhaps – have the selectors faced such an extensive task of rebuilding and reconstruction.
Luckily, we have an awesome trio in charge, in the shape of James Whitaker, Angus Fraser, and Ashley Giles. So daunting is the scale of the challenge, though, that even these three powerhouses of charisma and creativity may struggle to identify an XI which will not only find the right blend of youth and experience, but more importantly, win test matches.
That last point deserves emphasis. We have only won five of our last fifteen test matches. So it’s absolutely vital that the ‘new’ England team very quickly develop a winning habit. They need to remember what victory feels like. It’s the only way that a side with so many rookies, and led by a captain with such fragile confidence as Alastair Cook, can begin to forge a recovery.
As I’ve said, picking the team to achieve that – with the players now available – is one hell of a job. So here at The Full Toss we thought we’d lend a hand. Here is the XI I would pick for the Lord’s test on 12th June. I’ve tried to be strict with myself, and forbid any fudges, either/ors, or even a twelfth man. And as ever, I’d love to hear your thoughts: who would you have picked?
1. Alastair Cook
Almost unbelievably, the skipper has now become a symbol of controversy and conflict. Personally, I will never forgive Cook for the cowardice and selfishness he displayed over Pietersen-gate, but even if you are more generously disposed towards him, no one can deny that his captaincy is now on the line. He brings nothing to the role except runs, and unfortunately there haven’t been enough of those for quite a while.
In the year since his last test century, against New Zealand in Dunedin in March 2013, Cook has scored 587 runs in twenty three innings, at only 25.5. True, his hefty career aggregate entitles him to the odd fallow period, but he seems to have too many of those, and this current one must continue no longer.
Cook makes my team, through gritted teeth, because there is no sensible alternative. And as he likes batting against Asian bowlers, this summer he needs to fill his boots.
2. Michael Carberry
I know what you’re going to say. 1 – he seems unable to kick on and make a score. 2 – he’s too long in the tooth to flourish at test level. And 3 – he has a a weird helmet. But Carberry remains a better option – and a finer player – than Nick Compton, his main rival to the second opening berth. It remains a worry that during the Ashes he couldn’t consolidate his starts into big innings, but we should make a few allowances for the situation. He was a rookie, trying to find his feet in test cricket in the most torrid and chaotic circumstances imaginable.
What’s more, we can only cut our coat according to our cloth, and while Carberry is unlikely to go on and make 10,000 test runs, his composure and maturity will come in very useful during this delicate process of rebuilding the side. If nothing else, he probably dealt with Australia’s attack better than any of his team-mates. Carberry seems to have lots of time to play the ball, and against Johnson and Harris he certainly looked more in control and better organised than Cook.
3. Ian Bell
This is admittedly far from ideal. I have always argued against the persistent clamour to elevate Bell to three; he is too erratic and muddled. In Australia, all Bell’s bad habits seemed to return under pressure, including his tendency to panic, and a career-long predilection for dinking his first ball into the hands of mid-off for no apparent reason. But all of that said, he now has to bat three – because there’s simply no one else who could possibly do it.
4. Eoin Morgan
Filling Pietersen’s boots is a tall order whomever you pick, and if replacing KP with Morgan feels like swapping a magnum of Moet and Cordon for a bottle of Sainsbury’s cava – well, someone should have thought about that before we dropped our best player.
The Irishman is not in Kevin’s class, of course, but at least he’s a cavalier, not a roundhead, and you need at least a couple of those to make a decent team. As Pink Floyd once said, “hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way” – and that’s as true of our cricket as anything. Maybe it’s why we often fall short. Morgan may be far from the finished article, but not only is he the the finest striker of a cricket ball still eligible for England, he’s the one man who can inject some genuine energy, fun, and brio. He plays with verve and ambition, and could potentially evolve into that more precious of cricketing assets – a player who acutely discommodes the opposition.
Morgan seemed naive and poorly organised when he first played test cricket, but since then he has matured and developed. He is now a more substantial cricketer, and deserves a second chance.
5. Gary Ballance
Instead of Joe Root. Listen, I want Rooty to prosper as much as the next man, but we have to be realistic and accept that for now at least, it’s just not working out. We all fell in love with the idea of Root, but that love blinded us to the facts. Far from emerging from his chrysalis as the new Len Hutton, he has gone backwards, in a manner which has destabilised our entire top order. During the ten Ashes tests, it seemed as if he was at the heart of every collapse.
So while Root goes back to Yorkshire to consolidate his game, Ballance is the next cab off the rank, and his excellent reputation in county cricket is enough to cement his place for the time being. He may not have scored many runs in the Sydney test – neither did anyone else – but he looked composed and self-assured. I liked the cut of his jib.
6. Ben Stokes
A no-brainer, of course, but with a health-check attached. Please, please, please – let’s keep our expectations for Stokes at realistic levels for the time being. He’s made a really nice start but is still very raw – and inevitably there will be hiccups and setbacks along the way.
Stokes is made of the right stuff. The only question is whether the England management can nurture and develop him properly. Too often of late, they’ve ruined every young player who’s passed through the dressing room.
7. Jos Buttler
If Paul Downton’s statement about KP meant anything at all of substance, its message was this: we need to clear out all the crap from the England team and virtually start again. What Downton probably also meant to say was “…apart from Alastair Cook’s mates”. But if we take his words at face value, the only logical conclusion is that Matt Prior must go – at least for the time being.
Prior’s trough of form has been long and deep. It’s not acceptable merely to drop him for two tests and them almost immediately bring him back for no good reason. He has to demonstrate a return to form by scoring runs heavily for Sussex over a sustained period, and prove that he’s still the best wicket-keeper-batsman in England.
Any other approach is unfair to the team. It also corrupts the entire rationale of selection, because it means leaving out Buttler on the spurious grounds that Prior’s past form and reputation make him a better bet.
To my eye, Buttler has something special about him – not just a superb eye and purity of stroke, but a sense of irresistibility. In his case, quality outweighs the risks of inexperience. Let’s throw caution to the wind.
8. Stuart Broad
He was the only senior player to emerge from the Ashes with his reputation intact – perhaps even enhanced. By the time we next play Australia, will he be captain?
9. James Anderson
Has Ando run out of puff? He’s looked increasingly knackered ever since the Trent Bridge test match last year, and the truth is that England have flogged him in to the ground. Anderson is the classic English case of the Rolls Royce used for the school run and trips to Asda, an asset depreciated by overuse.
But pound for pound, he is still our best bowler – so we’ll just have to hope he can recharge himself with enough energy and freshness to remain effective in tests until the end of next summer. To that end, I hope he is retired from all limited overs international cricket. Stuff the world cup: Anderson no longer has the legs for both formats, and the overwhelming priority is his role in the 2015 Ashes.
10. Graham Onions
Tim Bresnan is past it. Steve Finn has been destroyed by David Saker. Boyd Rankin is a non-starter. So who else but Onions is a viable option as third seamer?
I contemplated both Tymal Mills and Chris Jordan for the role, but soon thought better of it. Now is hardly the time to blood an vulnerable young apprentice in the England team environment. It’s too dangerous. The management ruin every bowler they lay their hands on. Wiser for the moment to play safe and pick a seasoned pro who’s better equipped to fend off the ECB wrecking ball.
Besides, Onions – who took 73 first class wickets at 18.93 last summer – will do a good job, and of all the available bowlers, is the one most likely to help us win test matches. That’s a valuable enough asset in itself.
11. Monty Panesar
You got any better ideas?
I suspect not. However, let me explain my rationale, which might look confused: picking glamorous rookie batsmen on the principle we need to clean-slate, while selecting hoary old has-beens for the bowling. In fact, the two cases are very different, because there are genuine options among the batting ranks but almost none among the bowlers.
Here’s another factor: taking a punt on a bowler involves a risk twice as great as with a batsman. If a batsman fails, he is simply out, and the innings moves on. But if a bowler proves to be completely dreadful, not only has he delivered poor spells and conceded many runs. The captain can no longer meaningfully bowl him, so the other bowlers have to deliver his overs as well as their own, and in turn the entire attack suffers.
As an example, think about what happened with Simon Kerrigan at the Oval last August, which also demonstrated how the problem becomes especially acute when the misfiring bowler is a spinner. An inadequate and inexperienced spinner – and Scott Borthwick must rank in that category at present – can very quickly unravel into a terrible spinner when put under pressure. And right now that is a situation we can ill afford.
So Monty it must be, and no bad thing. I’d argue that overall he bowled perfectly well at Adelaide and Melbourne, given the circumstances. If nothing else, he keeps it tight – and in that respect at least partially fills the vast hole left by Graeme Swann.
Over to you
So there’s my XI for the first test. Who’s in yours?