England: The inclusion of Gary Ballance may delight headline writers, but it is the somewhat ironic lack of balance in the Ashes squad that may come back to haunt England.
Size is everything in this squad. The inclusion of four tall, strong seamers – Chris Tremlett, Boyd Rankin, Stuart Broad and Steven Finn – underlines the preference of the current England management for bowlers of such characteristics above all other considerations. England are in the age of the giant fast bowler.
There is some logic in the policy. On Australian pitches expected to offer more pace and bounce than those seen in the Ashes series in England, such bowlers could prove a handful. The limitations of traditional English seam or swing bowlers can sometimes be exposed on such surfaces.
But there is no obvious Plan B available in this England squad. If James Anderson is injured – and the thought of it should be enough to send shivers down the spine of any England supporter – the England seam attack will have the subtly of a sledgehammer. Height, pace and bounce are valuable attributes, but they are not the only attributes and the inclusion of Rankin and Tremlett et al. looks like too much of a good thing.
It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the selectors no longer have much regard for performances at county level. If they did, Graham Onions – who has taken 143 first-class wickets at an average of 18.39 in the last two seasons – would have been an automatic selection. Instead they have opted for Tremlett, who has been selected more due to memories of his performances in Australia in 2010-11 than any recent success, and Rankin, who is bowling with menace but has taken one five-wicket haul since May 2011. Onions, by contrast, has taken five this season.
It is not hard to understand Onions’ disappointment. Indeed, writing on Twitter, he said “Disappointed is an understatement, absolutely gutted.”
Onions has been, without question, the best English-qualified seamer in county cricket over the last couple of years. While it is true that pitches at his home ground in Durham offer more assistance than any England are likely to find in Australia, he has also taken wickets away from home. In Durham’s last two away Championship games, Onions claimed match-figures of 9 for 85 in Derby, which is generally one of the best wickets in the country, and first-innings figures of 7 for 62 at Lord’s. His qualities – accuracy and movement – are timeless, yet it seems they are outdated to the current England management.
While the selectors have ignored Onions’ excellent domestic record, they have also overlooked Michael Carberry’s modest form. Carberry, who has scored one Championship century in two seasons of Division Two cricket, has been preferred to Nick Compton, who has scored six Division One centuries and two more in Test cricket in the same period and is more than two-years younger. Character has, in Carberry’s case, been deemed more important than achievement.
None of this means the selectors are wrong. They may well have identified skills that will be useful in Australia and ignored accomplishments that they feel are less relevant. But it is intriguing that the England management seem to have deemed, rightly or wrongly, the Compton experiment – that is the experiment of calling up a player from outside the youth teams or Lions programme on the back of excellent performances in county cricket – a failure. It may well be that they are reluctant to trust county performances again. It is a dangerous road down which to venture.
The selection of Ben Stokes ahead of Chris Woakes for the allrounder’s position might be seen in the same way. While Woakes’ first-class record – a batting average of 38.04 and a bowling average of 25.91 – is a little better than Stokes’ – 36.23 and 27.19 respectively – the selectors have again decided that the latter’s extra pace will render him more dangerous at Test level. It is, in general, a reasonable assumption, though it is worth recalling the success of Chaminda Vaas, Vernon Philander and Terry Alderman. You might even question whether Anderson, if he was six or seven years younger, would be considered by this England regime.
Ballance’s first-class record is excellent and his selection quite reasonable. He has a career average well in excess of 50 in both List A and first-class cricket and scored back-to-back centuries for England Lions against Australia and Bangladesh A only a month ago. He does not look the fittest but, aged 23, has time to improve that aspect of his game and has to be considered a genuine candidate to bat at No. 6 in the first Test at Brisbane.
It is also worth noting that none of the three uncapped players were born in England or Wales. While there is nothing wrong in England utilising all available options and, as result of a variety of historical issues, they have more options than most, it is intriguing that players whose initial development occurred outside England and Wales seem to thrive disproportionately and raises questions about the English system that it would be sensible to reflect upon. To be fair, suggesting that Stokes – born in New Zealand but as much a product of the north-east as Steve Harmison or Paul Collingwood – is anything other than home-grown would be stretching a point.
This is a squad that should be good enough to retain the Ashes. Australia are still in the early stages of their rebuilding operation and nine of the England XI for the first Test in Brisbane are likely to have been regular members of the team that won the series in England 3-0.
But questions remain about England’s bench strength. Should injury befall either of England two key bowlers – Graeme Swann or Anderson – the gap between the sides will narrow substantially.