Thursday, 24 August 2017

Forget batsmen and bowlers, England must find their best eleven

Edgbaston was a game and a finish that satisifed only the most partisan and the most short sighted.  England were ruthless (which is to their credit as they have not always been so) but the West Indies were so utterly toothless that any satisfaction was blinkingly ephemeral.

 Over the past thirty years there has been no sadder sight than the seemingly endless decline of Caribbean cricket. This was another sorry chapter. Just when you think they have reached rock bottom someone comes along with a shovel and proves otherwise. The announcement of their rebranding - no longer West Indies, simply Windies (or is it WIndies?)  - seemed as desperate as it was apt. Where there was fight there is now only flight; where once there was great substance there now seems only hot air.

 While no doubt sympathetic to the West Indian plight (Windian??) one small group who will been equally exasperated by the Birmingham stroll are the England selectors. With only this short three match series before they must pick an Ashes squad and with at least three batting places to fill they must have been desperately hoping that this First Test would bring some clarity and insight. Unfortunately as an academy of learning Edgbaston was more Do-The-Boys' Hall than Warwick University.

 As a result (and how England batsmen from the 1980's would laugh or cry at this) the failure of Mark Stoneman, Tom Westley and Dawid Malan, to prove themselves, has cemented their places for these final two Tests. Simply more data is needed. Each now has a golden opportunity at Headingley tomorrow to secure their positions for the winter (for a Test hundred is always a Test hundred) and yet each in their own way has as much to prove.

 Of Mark Stoneman, nothing can yet be judged, having received a ball of which even Malcolm Marshall would have been proud. Stoneman by name, he at least looked light and nimble in comparison to the statuesque Keeton Jennings.

 Tom Westley is an altogether more difficult nut to crack. He falls into the category of a number of recent players that have "looked the part" without ever convincingly playing it. Stylistically there is something of John Crawley, although a little less elegant in my view and certainly not in the same class in the playing of spin. Westley's tendency to hit balls on a fourth stump line through mid-on has already led to his downfall on several occasions and this, along with a tendency to play loosely at wider length balls (in the manner of James Vince) will  have been noted Down Under. As Mike Atherton has pointed out, with the Australian sure to target him in this area, he will need to employ the cut shot effectively.

 Meanwhile Dawid Malan's 68 merely takes him past Go and with it the right to receive two more Test caps. You can give him credit for surviving the second new ball as it swung compliantly under the lights but a closer examination would show that he only actually faced 21 balls from pace bowlers under these most testing conditions. So only a small credit and one quickly cancelled out by his failure to cash in fully the following day. Malan, unlike Westley, is at least on upward curve as Headlingley approaches.

 There is however, a very strong possibility that these issues will not be resolved in the next two games. Perhaps one of the three will make an unanswerable case, but any more than that is surely wishful thinking. On this basis the selectors' should already be working on Plan B. Only in my view Plan B should really be Plan A; and Plan A means picking your best eleven players. Carrying one player into an Ashes series is unwise, more than that is suicidal.

 In an ideal world this would mean choosing the five best batsman followed by Stokes, Bairstow and Ali and three other bowlers.But in England's case the aformentioned Stokes, Bairstow and arguably Ali are also amongst those five best batsmen. On the hard, bouncy Australian wickets Stokes is in the top three with Bairstow close behind. The fact that we don't have five other international class batsman need not be a weakness, picking substandard ones would be.

 Continuing the best XI principle and the option of Chris Woakes, who made his England debut at number 6, would strengthen this middle order yet further. Do the selectors believe that Dawid Malan is likely to make substantially more runs than Chris Woakes? Enough to offset Woakes' all-round value? If they do then he should play. I have my doubts though. If they decide otherwise the selection suddenly becomes a little simpler. And simpler becomes almost straightforward if Mark Stoneman were to nail down the opening position and prove a reliable partner to Alistair Cook because  this would surely encourage Joe Root to return to his best position of number 3.

 Ian Chappell argues that it is the best place to bat because you can establish the pattern of play. In his view it is best suited to a skilled stroke maker capable of launching a counter attack, rather than "the technically sound player who fights his way out of trouble after an early loss".  But there is a caveat - a player must be mentally prepared to face the second ball of the innings "otherwise number 3 isn't for you". Root has all these attributes, however there is a big difference between being mentally prepared to face the newest ball and it being a matter of course. Nevertheless with Root back at 3, Stokes at 5 and Woakes at 8, suddenly it is a side with few weak links and many strong ones. Westley and Malan or even Ballance (for balance) would now be fighting it out for one spot instead of two.

 There also remains one bowling spot left alongside Broad, Anderson, Stokes, Woakes and Ali in what would be a six man attack. It is often said that six is too many, if they duplicate yes, but not if they complement. In Mark Wood, Mason Crane (or why not still Adil Rashid?) they have the option to include someone who can do something a bit different.

 One issue that still needs clarifying is Moeen Ali's role. The first or second spinner question is misleading. His all-round ability means that he will always play, therefore he is by definition the first spinner. Where Ali falls short, and the selectors were not wrong to highlight this, is when the pitch starts out flat. If there is help for the seamers, his first innings workload should be light, and if it turns from the start then he has the attributes to threaten all but the very finest players of spin. But if there is nothing much doing (as will often be the case in Australia after twenty overs with the Kookaburra ball) he lacks the control to to tie down an end, as Graeme Swann was often able to do.

  At Lord's against South Africa the selectors strayed from the 'best XI' principle in picking Liam Dawson, succumbing in my view to the overly normative assumption that the containing role must fall to a slow bowler. In a five man attack maybe but with six, it need not be the case. Chris Woakes (not fit for the Lord's game to be fair to the selectors) would be equally capable. Fitness permitting, he should be be back in the team this week, bringing England in the process another step closer to that best XI.

 Overall, there is much to play for over these last two Tests, both for individuals and for the English team. For the West Indies it is all about pride.    

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