England head into the third and final Test of the series against New Zealand to end a winter which has been, to say the least, eventful, and to say the most, appalling. This might sound a little odd at first glance: in the five Tests so far England have won one, lost two and drawn two; in the 10 ODIs they won four, lost five and tied one. Yet it is not results but pieces of selection that have been so mind-numbingly depressing in 2007/08.
In many ways it almost feels like a return to the free-for-all days of the late 1980s. And this a feeling garnered by someone who had not yet passed his fourth birthday at the end of that most chaotic and calamitous of all summers, 1989 (in case anyone has forgotten, 29 players were used over the course of six Tests, to follow 28 in the six in 1988). Duncan Fletcher made one or two odd picks in the time he had the primary hand on selection - and don't do the disservice of thinking they were confined to the later part of his tenure: Liam Plunkett (2005/06) and Sajid Mahmood (2006) stand alongside Chris Schofield (2000) and Usman Afzaal (2001) as somewhat inexplicable Test picks, while the ODI list is simply too long to even start on. But what the canny Zimbabwean stuck rigidly to was to back the players he did pick for the long-haul. It enabled a team to emerge in 2004 that could easily have been playing together two years previously, had injury not got in the way. To believe such a thing would have happened in 1996, another far-from-glorified year for the English game, never mind 1988 or 1989, would be fanciful.
Fletcher was roundly criticised - not completely sans-justification, it must be said - during the latter days of his tenure. Most unforgivable on his list of errors was going back to two players, Geraint Jones and Ashley Giles, who at the start of the winter of 2006/07 would themselves surely have struggled to justify their selection. Yet when compared to some of the decisions taken since he was hounded out of office, these look like masterstrokes. To start at the very start: in the first Test of the post-Duncan era, Matthew Prior took the gloves from Jones and Chris Read, whose places had finally become untenable. The fact that Prior scored a century in his maiden Test innings, averaged 65 in his first series, and kept as well as the bowling of Stephen Harmison and Plunkett allowed, tended to disguise the fact that his selection had little to nothing going for it. Prior averaged 22.57 in his four games for Sussex at the start of the season, without a single half-century. And the good start, not surprisingly, did not last: Prior could not make a run against the higher-calibre bowling of India, and in the third Test of that series, then again in the third Test in Sri Lanka, Prior's wicketkeeping was woefully inept.
Unless Prior has something of an aversion to third Tests, there are only two possible conclusions: that the selectors had not watched him closely enough to observe how bad his wicketkeeping could at times be; or that they knew how bad it could be, but gave him the gloves in Tests anyway. Whichever it was, especially given his early-season form, the decision was a shocking one. Nic Pothas, finally qualified for England, a wicketkeeper of proven calibre and a batsman both proven and in sparkling form in April and May, would have been a far better choice. It is possible that Tim Ambrose, more impressive than Prior in their first season on Sussex's books (2001) but someone who has taken a frustratingly long time to develop, may gloss over this particular mistake. We can only wait and see.
It was natural to blame Peter Moores for the Prior decision, given the new coach's Sussex connections, and nothing has since shown-up to suggest otherwise. Whether the follies which have followed were down to the new coach or a stronger hand for the chairman of selectors, David Graveney, can only be guessed at. And, as Graveney said just before his tenure came to an end, selection has long now been geared around collective responsibility, something that could only be dreamed of in the loose-cannon days of Raymond Illingworth and Brian Bolus. However, in Sri Lanka there were only two men who could conceivably be blamed for the inexplicable preference of Essex novice Ravinder Bopara to Middlesex's Owais Shah - Moores and Ashes-winning Michael Vaughan. Bopara's impressive 2007 and a few net sessions, evidently, were enough to place him ahead of Shah, who has been positively banging down the door every season since 2001. Shah's considerable efforts have so far been rewarded with a solitary two Tests, the first of which saw him play a massive part in a victory as uplifting as any in English cricket history. The Shah/Bopara case harked back to the 1992/93 subcontinent tour, where the always-volatile Philip Tufnell was tipped over the edge by the often-scattergun Ian Salisbury's bizarre leapfrogging of him based on nothing but net form.
Bopara's selection was not the only odd decision on that tour. Andrew Strauss had been, justifiably, dropped from the party following mostly poor form in 2006 and 2007. Had he been replaced by Shah, this would have made no more than an element of sense. Vaughan's return to the top of the order, where he has enjoyed little success since his return from Australia in 2002/03, from the number-three slot which he appeared to have finally made his own in 2007, was dubious enough; it became inexplicable once Bopara was the man to come in. Another specialist opener to replace Strauss would have been preferable to either Bopara or Shah: Kent's Robert Key has still batted in his favoured slot just three times in his Test career, and not once in the last five years. This despite domestic form every bit as good as Shah's, and considerably better than any other opener around the country.
Worse still was to follow in the second leg of the winter. Strauss, who had not played a single game of cricket since being omitted from the Sri Lanka Test party, was recalled for the series in New Zealand. Prior was dropped, which could be considered understandable given his shocking wicketkeeping, but seemed at least a little harsh following a highly (and perhaps unexpectedly) impressive series with the bat in Sri Lanka. A cause for some considerable alarm for England fans was the fact that Philip Mustard (First-Class average: 27.36, lower than 16 out of the other 17 regular wicketkeepers in the English game), picked bizarrely as the second wicketkeeper in Sri Lanka, remained in the squad, and for a time seemed to be in line for a Test debut. Fortunately, Ambrose's form was compelling enough for the original plan of him to make a Test debut to be maintained.
Pre-tour, the widescale assumption was that Vaughan had realised what a bad idea it was for him to open, and wanted to recreate the top-four which had played in the last six games of the 2007 summer. Still, Key's call-up would have been preferable, and the fact that Strauss came back on the back of no cricket led to suggestions that there had never been any intention to leave him out of the Antipodean leg of the tour, simply "rest" him from the Sri Lanka trip. If so, this ignored the glaring faults in Strauss' game that have developed since 2005, and have shown no sign of being solved.
However, the true height of absurdity was reached when it was revealed that Strauss would bat at three. Never mind the fact that Strauss been an opener for practically his entire cricket-playing life, he had been selected to bat three, ahead of Shah. What's more, this meant that the captain would continue in a position he had enjoyed negligible success in in recent times. This meant that in a single decision, four mistakes had been made. Not surprisingly, Strauss' form so far in New Zealand has been poor, and if he does not score in the upcoming game his future as a Test player must be under serious threat.
If we are to criticise, it is only fair that we also praise where applicable. In the second Test of the post-Fletcher era, Ryan Sidebottom returned to the team (he had only played his previous game, under Fletcher six years previously, because of several injuries) and has performed admirably ever since, handicapped though he has been by dropped catches. Where Fletcher had ignored Sidebottom for the 90 mph pace of Mahmood and the vaguely notable batting ability of Plunkett, Sidebottom's performances since getting back in the side have shown him to be an enormously superior bowler to either and one who should almost certainly have returned to the side in 2005/06. Aside from Anderson, often a spare part during the Fletcher era but clearly one who always remained thereabouts if rarely there, Chris Tremlett finally got onto the Test teamsheet four Tests after Fletcher's demise. He too proved himself immediately a superior bowler to either Mahmood or Plunkett, as well as Anderson, if one who still has much to work on. But it remains a mystery that Stuart Broad moved ahead of him in Sri Lanka... and then seemingly Tremlett moved ahead once more in New Zealand, before his injury allowed Broad back in. Even a strength has become a potential weakness in recent times.
Geoff Miller has recently taken office in the Chief Selector position he won ahead of Graveney; Miller was always identified by the few who knew them both as sharing of Fletcher's ideas on continuity. One can only hope that once he gets his feet under the table some sanity returns to England's selections.