Ashes HQ ASHES HQ 2009

One-off doesn’t mean random

OK, so we’ve come down to a nice’n’simple equation: there’s one Test remaining; if England win it, they win The Ashes; if they don’t win it, they lose them. So now’s the time to pick the best team, and hang the future.

Leaving aside the fact that, really, every Test should be about that (A team tours, domestic cricket, Academies and the like are the places to concentrate on the future, not the highest level itself), some people – and England supporters in particular – seem to take “pick the best team available to win this one Test” to mean “let’s go for someone we’d never normally consider”. It’s been difficult to keep track of the names which have been flying around in the days since defeat at Headingley became obvious (let’s be honest, it was near-certain after the opening session), so obscure have some been: Mark Ramprakash, James Foster, Robert Key, Marcus Trescothick, Michael Vaughan, Michael Carberry… and some have responded by saying “how about Graham Gooch or Chris Tavare?”

Let’s just get one thing straight here: England’s philosophy going into The Oval is no different to that which it was going into Swalec Stadium, or Lord’s, or Edgbaston, or Headingley. Well, at least, it shouldn’t be – if, at any point, the selectors were thinking anything other than “let’s pick the team we think gives us the best chance to win this Test”, they need to be swiftly handed their P45s. The question of whether Ravinder Bopara has been poor enough in the opening four Tests to change his position from “among the best XI cricketers in the country” to “not among the best XI cricketers in the country” is a fair one, as is an answer in the affirmative. But the question of whether the reasons for ignoring Ramprakash are weaker now than they have been at any point in the last seven-and-a-bit years is an absurd one. Ramprakash is no different a player now to what he was when he was dropped (some might argue – with hindsight, no-one did at the time – harshly) in 2002, that much is pretty obvious. He is still supremely physically talented, but his frailties of mind remain. If you believe he can overcome these frailties of mind to come good at Test level, as he did in 1998, and against all-comers, not just Australia, then he should not have been being constantly ignored over the past seven years. If you do not, then he should not be recalled now as he should not have been recalled at any point in the last seven years. Personally, I’m disappointed Ramprakash was axed in 2002, but I’d not be keen on his recall now

If we are honest with ourselves, we should realise that ten players simply must play at The Oval, barring some mishap over the course of the next week: Andrew Strauss and Alastair Cook to open; Ian Bell and Paul Collingwood to bat four and five; Matthew Prior to bat six and keep wicket; Andrew Flintoff to bat seven and bowl (the whole country who cares in the slightest for cricket will be crossing everything they can find to cross over this week that he is fit enough to play a substantial part); Stuart Broad and Graeme Swann to bat eight and nine and bowl; James Anderson to bat ten and bowl (presuming he can conquer his mysterious injury which caused him to interpret “full” as “short” at Headingley… and yes, I am joking there – I’m a bowler and I know only too well that one of the first things that happens when something’s not right is that it’s difficult to pitch properly full however hard you try); and Graham Onions to bat eleven, for what little that’s worth, and bowl.

Bell has been far less than impressive since returning, but why that surprises anyone I don’t know, because it was clear that little to nothing had changed when he was recalled a couple of weeks back. If you believed he was among the best eleven players then then you should believe it still now. Owais Shah probably had a stronger case before Edgbaston and he probably still has it now, but the chances of him superseding Bell are remote. Quite why anyone should want anyone other than Prior keeping wicket is beyond me – yes, we know that he usually has one shocking game per series, but if you pre-empt a wicketkeeper doing that, and risk bringing in someone effectively to play as a specialist lower-order batsman, then you’re making one of the most foolish decisions one could wish for in a must-win game. No-one should be convinced of Prior’s long-term credentials yet, but he’s kept wicket quite acceptably this series and to play him as a specialist bat for this final match would weaken the side beyond measure. Cook may have largely disappointed this series but can anyone seriously be confident that, on a one-off basis, Trescothick would do better? No, of course they can’t. Same thing applies to Key, and Carberry. So there’s no point changing for change’s sake.

Anderson and Onions were dreadful at Headingley, there’s no disputing that. But both have shown plenty enough earlier in the summer (and in Anderson’s case over the previous year as well) to make it quite obvious that there’s no-one around currently who has a strong chance of doing better. Yes, even Ryan Sidebottom – if you’d asked me this April (before the season’s opener) who was better out of Sidebottom and Onions I’d have said the former without a backward glance, and I challenge anyone to seriously contend they’d have done otherwise. But Sidebottom has, quite simply, not bowled anywhere near as well as Onions this term, and this time next week it would be a very long shot indeed to back Sidebottom to out-bowl Onions. If Anderson is not fit, then Sidebottom should be the first man called-up, but not otherwise. The idea that a spinner will be jettisoned completely is one that no-one should have the remotest of expectations of, however much it may have going for it, and the idea that any spinner should be preferred to Swann right now, however ineffective he’s been for most of this series, is plain madness. And if Broad could not be dropped after the utter nonsense he bowled for the vast majority of the opening three Tests, he certainly cannot be dropped after taking 6 for 90-odd in his most recent bowl.

The one serious question that should be asked is of who should bat three. So far as I can see, there are two sensible possibilities: Bopara, the incumbent (I personally have left my jury out on Bopara as a Test batsman since I first saw him, and it remains firmly there as of now); and Ed Joyce. Jonathan Trott is a fine batsman and has had a stunning season, but so has Shah, and so has Bell. Until this season, Trott was presumably several miles down the pecking-order for reasons of personality rather than skill (as demonstrated by the fact that he can’t even get in ODI squads despite being very probably the second-best one-day batsman in the country) and why this has changed recently is beyond me. Joyce, however, is the same thing now as he was when he was so incredibly unlucky not to get a Test in 2006 or 2007 – a good, solid, compact batsman, who has done about all that could be asked of a domestic cricketer, and has waited seemingly forever for his chance. By all accounts, this season he has prospered in the toughest situations. If Bopara is to be replaced, then for me, Joyce should be the man.

And apart from Flintoff returning to the place he only lost to Stephen Harmison thanks to his injury (whether he believed it was severe enough or not), that should be the only change in the England team. England cannot afford to lose sight of the fact that the best team doesn’t change based on how big the occasion is.

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