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Are we any closer to knowing England’s Ashes XI

Are we any closer to knowing England's Ashes XI

The need for a build in momentum for the England team was vital ahead of the Ashes and the series victory over West Indies was convincing, clinical, and judging by the general demeanour of the West Indies, it was also predictable, but absolutely necessary.

So, did this series offer us any conclusive evidence as to what the side may be when Australia are the visitors to Cardiff on July 8 ?

One of the main discussion points prior to Chris Gayle’s reluctant troops (and leader!) arriving, was surrounding England’s number three position. Michael Vaughan was told to re-capture his form with Yorkshire and weigh in with the kind of runs that make his selection inevitable. Before the first Test of the English season, Vaughan had three opportunities to impress, but made just 24, 20, and 5.

Ian Bell’s name is never too far away from the list of possibles, and it is understandable when a player possesses such class and quality as Bell has in abundance. Yet he always manages to leave spectators and team-mates alike feeling as though they have been deprived of a truly excellent innings, when an innocuous delivery has Bell traipsing back to the pavillion after a technically faultless cameo. He did begin the season in excellent form, but newly installed England coach Andy Flower had different ideas as to the direction he wanted his team to take.

A player Flower knew well from his Essex days was Ravi Bopara, and he was given the chance to stake an early claim for England’s crucial position, and it is not a position he will relinquish easily.

Bopara’s two centuries in the series (now three consecutive hundreds), against opposition best described as disinterested, may not be his finest hour just yet, but Bopara displayed the kind of skills that has had Essex followers purring for some time. Visually Bopara seemed to be using a bat much wider than most, and if his century in the Caribbean (at number 6) was a little frantic, then his two on home turf demonstrated the importance of patience in waiting for the loose delivery and a different tempo in building his innings. He was in control, calm, assured and looked a Test match veteran.

Runs in that series is one thing, but the more obvious, sterner tests lie ahead. Can he counter the pace and new-found inswing of Mitchell Johnson? Will Brett Lee look to exploit his methods in playing the short ball? We can only summise at this stage, but one thing that does look certain is that he will get the opportunity to answer these questions at number three.

Will there be any surprises in the opening two above him? It is unlikely, Alistair Cook’s technical glitches have been highlighted only too frequently in the last few months, but while he still hangs the bat out outside his off stick with a lack of positive footwork, he continues to accumulate an impressive number of runs for England. His highest Test score in his last innings means only Ramnaresh Sarwan and Andrew Strauss have more Test runs than Cook’s 593 this calendar year.

Kevin Pietersen is a cert at four, while the usual speculation around Paul Collingwood will never go away due to his style of play, but the attributes that he brings to the side may be a crucial factor later this year.

While Matt Prior’s wicket-keeping continues to come under close scrutiny, his batting ability is not in question. He showed that he would not look out of place as a specialist batsman, and should Andrew Flintoff return from his latest operation, Prior should be utilised at number six again.

Is his keeping really that bad? In comparison to a complete specialist such as Essex’s James Foster, then yes, but he is reasonably steady and continues to work very hard on improving it.

Maybe the crucial half chances that seem to allude Prior’s hands would generally nestle safely into Foster’s palms, but the England selectors were aware of Prior’s shortfalls in certain keeping areas and it was felt his ability in front of the wicket would comfortably outweight his negatives behind the wicket. From what I have seen of Prior so far at this level, there is nothing to suggest this would not be the case.

The make up of the bowling attack (and the side as a whole) depends of the fitness of ‘Freddie’ Flintoff. It appears that a build up to a big series/tournament would not be the same without question marks surrounding Andrew Flintoff’s injury.

If he’s fit, expect him to bat at seven with four specialist bowlers alongside him (the possibility of two spinners a real option in the right conditions). Should he not regain fitness then England must decide between five specialist bowlers (the balance they adopted against the West Indies), or the protection of an extra batsman, resulting in more overs for Bopara, Pietersen and Collingwood.

The latter seems the more sensible approach. Stuart Broad at seven may work against weaker opposition, but against the Australians, who do have an appreciably stronger bowling attack, Ian Bell may be an important safety measure in the middle order. It is at number six where Bell has scored four of his eight Test hundreds to date.

Graeme Swann will start the Ashes as England’s number one spinner. He currently has 34Test wickets to his name at just over 26 per wicket. However, five of his seven Tests have been played against West Indies, and Australia may look to target him in a similar way they looked to go after Ashley Giles. Swann gives England some control, he has variations to counter such an attack from Ponting and is a naturally more attacking bowler than Giles, in terms of the line he bowls.

So the only place in the attack up for grabs is the fourth bowling spot, if we take Jimmy Anderson, Stuart Broad and Graeme Swann as automatic selections.

Graham Onions has done his cause no harm by taking 10 wickets against West Indies at an average of 20. He was assisted by helpful early season English tracks but found his areas, bowled with lively pace, and is working hard on mastering his inswinger. He has had plenty of success in bowling to left-handers, with Australia possibly selecting four in the top six, it may be another tick in the box for Onions (Swann will also relish the opportunity of bowling at so many ‘lefties’).

Geoff Miller and his selection panel will discuss all the alternatives such as Steve Harmison and Saj Mahmood, should England prefer to hit the tourists with more pace, or a recall for Ryan Sidebottom who gives England variety, aggression, and accuracy. Of course at this stage it is all speculation, and it may come down to the man in the best form prior to the squad being selected.

I expect Tim Bresnan to be the man to miss out should Flintoff return or the extra batsman is opted for. The Yorkshireman was not poor by any stretch in his debut series, but may find his game more suited and more valuable to England in the shorter formats for the time being.

So with cases strengthened, and others still some way from being certainties, it promises to be an intruiging build-up. Australia captain Ricky Ponting still believes they’ll be lining up against Michael Vaughan and Steve Harmison, but as it stands, it could be anybody’s guess. Talking of guesses and predictions, surely we are due another one from Glenn McGrath in the not too distant future.

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