Time for cool contemplation & tough decisions but not panic
Quite rightly Andrew Strauss and Andy Flower both said yesterday that England were not going to panic ahead of the Fifth Test, which starts at The Oval on 20th August. Despite the crushing defeat at Headingley, the series stands at 1-1 and if England wins the final Test, the celebrations of 2005 will be repeated, although hopefully with no MBEs this time!
As usual following a bad England defeat, frenzied speculation has already started as to the wholesale changes that will be made for The Oval. This is music to the ears of Ricky Ponting and his newly rampant Australian team. “Ah, that’s obviously all started, so for us that’s terrific,” he said with a smile like a Cheshire cat in his post-match news conference. Thankfully, it seems Flower and Strauss are going to take a more philosophical approach, with Strauss reminding one interviewer that England has a “good record of coming back after bad performances”.
That said, England were woeful at Headingley and careful contemplation is needed to assess what line-up gives the home side the best chance of winning what is likely to be the biggest Test match of all-time in terms of build up and pressure. England has scored one ton to Australia’s seven in the series so far, and the middle order of Ravi Bopara, Ian Bell and Paul Collingwood managed a calamitous total of 16 runs between them in Leeds (the lowest-ever aggregate for England’s Nos. 3, 4 and 5 in Tests). With Kevin Pietersen out, England seem to rely solely on Strauss, who is the only England batsman averaging over 40 in the series.
The bowling was not much better and despite seeing how Australia’s bowlers had skittled them for 102; the England bowlers adopted a brainless short pitched bowling strategy. Strauss was right to say that “both batsman and bowlers didn’t acquit themselves. It certainly wasn’t a 450 wicket. It wasn’t a 100 wicket either”. James Anderson’s body language throughout the match was terrible, making Justin Langer’s infamous dossier seem very prescient. Only Stuart Broad came out with any credit, although he was flattered by figures of 6 for 91.
So where should England make changes? On the batting side, Bopara (105 runs in the series at an average of 15.50), and Bell (566 runs in 12 Tests against Australia at 24.60 and a seeming inability against fast left arm swing), would seem the most vulnerable. It would not be panic to replace these two, but common sense and hopefully England will reap the same benefit Australia did when taking Phillip Hughes out of the firing line. Both Alistair Cook (series average 29.00) and Collingwood (series average 32.14) seem to have sound temperaments and should have enough credit in the bank to keep their places, especially the latter after his match-saving performance at Cardiff.
Who comes in? Well, Jonathan Trott, who is having a fantastic season and who appears to be next in line in the minds of the selectors must come into contention. However, is the furnace of what is effectively a Cup Final, the place to make your Test match debut?
In my view, the selectors should look at three candidates, all of whom have Test match experience:
1. Marcus Trescothick
He may be retired from international cricket, and a long-time return to the fold is unlikely due to his unfortunate health problems. Nevertheless, I get the impression that he could be persuaded to make a one-off return at The Oval. Trescothick is bang in form having been the first batsman to pass 1,000 championship runs for the season and is fresh from scoring a century in each innings against Warwickshire at the weekend. During the 2005 Ashes, Banger was one of the big reasons England won the Ashes due to the fast starts he invariably gave the innings. If he does want to play, he should be selected without a doubt, and could open the innings with Strauss, which would enable Cook to drop down to three.
2. Mark Ramprakash
Along with Trescothick, Pietersen and Strauss, Ramps is still one of the best quartet of English qualified batsman playing today. However, he last played for England in 2002, and hardly set the World alight in Test Cricket with only two centuries in 52 Tests at an average of 27.32. That said he did notch 933 runs in 12 Tests against Australia at an average of 42.40, with one century – 133 at the Oval in 2001. Furthermore, he has undoubtedly improved markedly since his last Test, continually averaging over 100, and again could come in as a one-off at either three of four. For me, he should come in only if Trescothick is unable to.
3. Rob Key
The Kent captain has been dealt with shabbily by the England selectors since his last Test in South Africa in 2005. In eight Tests at number three, Key averaged 40.9. He is respected by the Aussies and would undoubtedly add stability to the fragile middle order. He is also made of the right stuff and would be prepared to stand toe to toe with the Australian bowlers. Shane Warne, Ian Botham, David Gower and Geoff Boycott all believe that Key should be called up, and if it is good enough for them, it should certainly be good enough for the selectors. As an added bonus, Key is an innovative skipper and could offer useful advice to Strauss in the pressure cauldron of The Oval.
On the bowling side, much rests on the fitness of Andrew Flintoff, who unless he cannot walk is highly likely to regain his spot at The Oval. The rest of the bowling line-up is intriguing. Does England stick with Stephen Harmison, on a wicket where he could be a match-winner? Is James Anderson fit? Should they go with two spinners? What about Stuart Broad after his much improved performance at Headingley – is he really one of the best three or four seamers in the country?
The selectors should cover all bases in the squad and pick two spinners. Again I would go for experience and select Monty Panesar over Adil Rashid. However, after Cardiff, I remain to be convinced that two spinners is the way to beat this Australian team; unless those two spinners are Murali and Mendis, of course!
So, one spinner (Swann) for me in the XI, and assuming Flintoff will play, I would go for Anderson (if fit and hopefully with better body language), Onions and Harmison (assuming the pitch has the usual bounce of The Oval). It may be harsh for Broad to carry the drinks, but this is a Cup Final that England has to win, and with his good friends Fred and Key both in the side, I would expect to see a fired up Harmison.
So the XI to win the Ashes: Trescothick, Strauss, Cook, Key, Collingwood, Prior, Flintoff, Swann, Harmison, Anderson & Onions.
It’s going to be tantalising wait until 11.00 a week Thursday.
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