By Neil Robinson 16/05/05
With the opening Test of the summer rapidly approaching, English cricket followers have been having a few mild wobbles over the form of the national team’s star players. With the exception of the rival youngsters Robert Key and Ian Bell, both of whom got off to a roaring start with big hundreds, few of England’s batsmen had made runs up to this week’s final round of Championship matches.
Openers Marcus Trescothick and Andrew Strauss both struggled for runs, although Trescothick may have been distracted in part by the arrival of a new baby. Particularly worrying was Strauss’s evident discomfort when facing Shane Warne in Middlesex’s game against Hampshire this week. Michael Vaughan’s introduction to the season was delayed, but the rest didn’t seem to have done him much good, while Graham Thorpe has had such a nightmare that reaching double figures would have been an achievement of some significance. That was before his back went again, leaving many observers wondering whether this was not a season too far for the Surrey veteran.
As for the hype surrounding Kevin Pietersen’s first season with Hampshire, he seemed at first to be struggling under the weight of expectation. The runs did not flow, and when I watched him in a one-day game at Northampton, both his innings and his dismissal (caught at short leg off inside edge and thigh-pad) had an air of anti-climax about them. A glorious aberration would have been so much more in keeping with his extravagant personality.
Despite his outstanding one-day series in South Africa last winter, England’s selectors, mindful of the effects of excess expectation and poor form when Graeme Hick was introduced into the Test side, might have baulked at the idea of granting Pietersen a Test debut without a few first-class runs under his belt. The circumstances are quite different of course. Hick was thrown in at number 3 against a still formidable West Indian attack on the worst batting pitch on the Test circuit in the worst form of his life. Batting at five on a friendlier Lord’s surface against Bangladesh is not quite such a terrifying prospect. But Graveney, Fletcher and co. will have been relieved nonetheless when Pietersen finally battered 125 off 111 balls against Kent and Canterbury at Lord’s this week. Michael Vaughan’s 53 against Leicestershire the same afternoon, while not as spectacular, was no less welcome.
Elsewhere the signs for England have been encouraging. Andrew Flintoff’s recovery from ankle surgery has progressed quicker than expected, he even came unscathed through a brief five-over spell in this week’s Championship match against Durham. Ashley Giles has been bowling better than ever, and he was the leading wicket taker in the country until a minor hip-flexor strain halted his progress this week. Matthew Hoggard has been as metronomic and unspectacular as usual, while his new ball partner Steve Harmison has been a changed character, bearing a smile broader than the empty golden beaches of his native Northumberland.
If one thing can be said to determine England’s chances of regaining the Ashes, it is the bowling of Harmison. It is just about conceivable that England can now match Australia in batting strength, but, the all-round talents of Flintoff notwithstanding, they can only field one truly world-class bowler against Australia’s three. If Harmison were to underperform as badly as he did in South Africa last winter England might still fight, but it would be hard to imagine them winning.
Thankfully for England, all the signs are that the Ashington Express is back on track. Bowling well within himself, Harmison has shown rhythm, accuracy and fire. A welcome number of his wickets have come bowled or lbw. Against Lancashire this week he achieved his best return of the summer so far, a second innings bag of 6 for 52 added to his first innings 3-32, a just reward for excellent fast bowling. Significant scalps included his great friend Andrew Flintoff, lbw for a bullish 55, and Aussie Ashes hopeful Brad Hodge, twice in the match, fending to slip and playing on.
Michael Vaughan knows that wickets from Harmison are vital this summer. While Flintoff, Hoggard, Jones and Giles can be expected to produce control and pressure, they are unlikely to run through a disciplined batting line up the way Harmison might. A look at England’s 25-man development squad (a welcome extension this year to the core of centrally contracted internationals) reveals few other bowlers of equivalent wicket-taking ability. The new faces are Jon Lewis, a steady, line and length merchant in the English tradition, and Chris Tremlett, an alp of a man, who makes the ball rear off a length, but who is well short of Harmison’s pace and tends to pick up wickets in twos and threes rather than large bags.
England will be hoping to rely upon known quantities this summer, hence the shortage of new faces in the 25 and the continued presence of Mark Butcher. Fine players though they are, I hope we do not see Butcher and Thorpe together in an England team this year. A desire to avoid throwing in too many inexperienced batsmen against the all-conquering Aussies is understandable, and left-handers will always be needed against Shane Warne, but neither of the Surrey men is particularly mobile in the field or an especially reliable catcher. Pietersen, among his many talents, is a fine and versatile fielder, as is Warwickshire’s Ian Bell. This, if nothing else, ought to give those two the edge over Kent’s Robert Key.
A pressing question which the selectors must address this weekend when choosing the side for the first Test is that of Andrew Flintoff. Should they play him as a batsman alone, or allow him to continue his recuperation with Lancashire? For my money it has to be the latter. It is hard to believe that England cannot afford to be without him for the Bangladesh series, and Bell and Pietersen both offer options as back-up bowlers if England should decide to go in with a four-man attack.
Another issue is that of wicket-keeper Geraint Jones. He is another who has struggled to make runs this spring, and since his glovework remains less impressive than that of his many rivals, he will need to make runs against Bangladesh to guarantee his position against Australia. Chris Read, Matt Prior and James Foster are all quality alternatives.
With the injuries to Thorpe, Giles and Simon Jones not thought to be serious, the selection meeting is unlikely to be a long or argumentative one. Butcher has yet to recover from his wrist problem, so if six batsmen are to play there is room for both Bell and Pietersen to battle it out for an Ashes slot. Key will surely receive a mention, but he failed to convince in South Africa, and as a potential Test number three his technique is not the equal of Bell’s.
Young men like Bell and Pietersen have a great chance to make names for themselves this summer. It is a watershed year for English cricket, with the old guard, Butcher and Thorpe, unlikely to be around once it is over. It is a time for new names to emerge and promise to be fulfilled. And as English cricket looks to the future, it does so at last with a sane plan in mind. Under new Chief Executive David Collier, the strategic blueprint for the next four years, “Building Partnerships”, contains many worthy ideas. Worthiest of all is the promise that Counties will receive financial rewards for producing England qualified players, in a scheme remarkably similar to one proposed on these pages 18 months ago. A watershed indeed.
England XII for the First Test against Bangladesh, beginning at Lord’s, Thursday, May 26th:
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