Paul Wood | 3:18pm gmt 18 Dec 2011
Continuity in selection is difficult if the team are not achieving the desired results, it becomes awkward for the selectors to remain patient with the players that are not yet delivering. It can be argued that you cannot persist with players that are clearly out of their depth and so change becomes inevitable, when a team is failing to win the new players to the side have to hit the ground running or they risk being cast aside back to domestic cricket with their confidence taking a serious dent. Alternatively if a selection committee sticks with the players they believe are good enough to succeed, then despite their immediate form, they will become a confident team that will eventually produce the right kind of performances.
For England though, consistency in selection was missing for large portions of the painful years throughout the 1990's, but now things are so very different. Geoff Miller, chairman of selectors, has just announced the 16-man squad to travel to the neutral destination of the United Arab Emirates to face the challenge of a resurgent Pakistan side. The squad represents just one single change from the initial squad that was picked for the successful Ashes tour in 2010/11, with Paul Collingwood's retirement forcing an alternative inclusion, and again they have been consistent in opting for Ravi Bopara who has been around the England squad for some time and also filled in for Jon Trott during the summer series against India.
Perhaps none of the current England squad divide public opinion more than Bopara. Many think he has had enough opportunities to impress, and that he has not done so in a convincing enough fashion to be retained in England's Test squad. Others can see the genuine talent in his strokeplay. He has had his technical problems when examined at the top level and it is yet to be proven that he has clearly overcome those weaknesses and had little opportunity to demonstrate his skills during his two Tests last summer. When he strode out against India at Edgbaston the score was 596-4, then at the Oval it was an equally dominant 487-5, the kind of situations where the batsman can only lose - he scores runs and everyone proclaims 'so he should' and if he fails it stands out like a beacon on the run heavy scorecard. Bopara made 7 and 44 not out (his critics would suggest it's not acceptable, pro-Bopara fans will say an average of 51).
A brief analysis of his career to date points to an unsuccessful debut series in Sri Lanka, a resounding statement against the West Indies with three successive centuries (one in the Caribbean and two in the home series) regardless of the opposition or pitches, that remains a hugely impressive achievement. His Ashes series in 2009 batting at number three was a step too far and weaknesses were clearly identified, then his next Test appearances came in the aforementioned Indian series. It still, in my opinion, remains unclear whether he can crack it at the top level and I understand England's reticence in discarding such a talent before they can be absolutely certain. I believe Bopara will come again, and this time he must make his mark, thus earning himself a run in the side so we can all be left in no doubt.
So providing the selectors indulged in lengthy discussions about Bopara's place, who would have been at the forefront of their minds when suggesting alternatives ? James Taylor recently moved from Leicestershire to Nottinghamshire and would no doubt have been mentioned, but he needed a more authoritative County Championship than the one produced in 2011 to exert more pressure on Bopara, despite his 889 runs coming in a struggling Leicester side. Jonny Bairstow and Alex Hales are two highly promising young batsmen and both broke the 1,000 run barrier in Division One, but it makes sense for these players to continue their development before being thrown into Test cricket, also their time would at this stage surely be better spent playing cricket for the England Lions at the same time as the Pakistan series runs.
The other omission was Samit Patel, who he himself claimed did not come as a surprise and nor should it have done. The advantage of bowling some left-arm spin may have been useful in the UAE, but it is his strongest discipline that he still needs to find consistency with, and concerns I am sure will still remain over his general fitness. He needs an eye-catching 2012, he has the ability, now he has to deliver the results.
England's back-up wicket-keeper is Steven Davies, and due to the outstanding form and fitness of Matt Prior, chances have been non-existent (only Tim Ambrose has kept wicket for a single Test in the last three years), which I suppose means he has done very little wrong and so keeps the spot. Bairstow may have been considered, yet question marks over his keeping ability would be present for Test cricket.
On the bowling front, again there were few surprises, those selected were the ones widely tipped to make the trip. Stuart Broad and Chris Tremlett return from injury (as does batsman Eoin Morgan) and compliment fellow quicks Jimmy Anderson and Tim Bresnan. There is also room for Steve Finn, who seems to be making good strides in recent months and a spell in the Plunket Shield in New Zealand will only have assisted him. Graham Onions will surely have pushed Finn hard for that last seam bowling slot, the Durham man took 50 Championship wickets in 2011 and proved his fitness, should there have been any doubts. Onions will be on stand-by up until the first Test - Tremlett, Broad and Bresnan must first prove their fitness - but is not included as an official squad member.
Monty Panesar's 69 wickets in the Championship ensured he made the squad, and there is little doubt that he is currently the second best spinner England have available to them, and it is only two specialist spinners that have been selected. So if England are tempted to include them both, will it be at the expense of a batsman or would they risk a four-man attack of two spinners and two pacemen ?
There are no indications at this stage, and conditions are sure to be thoroughly assessed before any decision is confirmed. The two spinner and two paceman balance is favoured by India in their own conditions, but it is a formula that I don't believe England will consider too seriously. If batting conditions are favourable, then surely with a keeper of such batting ability as Matt Prior (and potential lower-order support of Broad, Bresnan and Swann), the best option would be to leave out a batsman and push Prior up to six which would mean England could include three pacemen alongside Swann and Panesar.
On numerous occasions before this series England have had the opportunity to experiment with a five-man bowling attack, but they have remained rigid and confident that four-men can competently do the job of taking 20 wickets, and so they have been proved right. The last time England went with such a formation was in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in March 2010, when James Tredwell partnered Graeme Swann and Prior was shifted up to number six. Michael Carberry was the man left out and Jon Trott was shunted up to open, of course this was the tour that Andrew Strauss rightly remained at home, so maybe this switch cannot be ruled out.
There has been just two Tests played previously at the Dubai International Cricket Stadium (the venue for the opening Test of the series) and the balance favoured in the four line-ups has been the inclusion of two specialist spinners (opted for by three of the four teams chosen). The game between Sri Lanka and Pakistan produced more success for the spinners, despite Sri Lanka opting for just one specialist tweaker (Ranagana Herath). Of the 56 Test wickets to fall at this ground, 31 have been taken from spin bowling (55%), and of the 784.1 overs to be bowled 457.1 of those have been sent down from the slow bowlers (58%). So the question is, while spin does play a large part in these conditions, is it enough for England to tamper with their tried and trusted balance of the side with three seamers and Graeme Swann as the only spinner ?
There are two tour matches and plenty of time to debate the right balance of the side ahead of the opening Test. The squad announcement passed by without so much as a raised eyebrow, will the final XI provide us with any surprises ?