Bairstow, Morgan, Bopara and More: Assessing England's Test Batting Options
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The origins of the idiom "The Rat Race" is the image of rats energetically scurrying around a city; in and out of streets, down into sewers and along roof tops expending a lot of energy but ultimately achieving very little. An endless, seemingly futile, harsh world in which only the toughest survive.
It could, however, have its origins in the life of a domestic cricketer: the day-to-day grind of training, travelling and playing, the eternal yearning for the next level and with regards to this, for most, perpetual disappointment. This is the rat race for international selection.
It is interesting to consider how many domestic players realistically see reaching international cricket as a viable objective. But there's no doubting that for all those who tirelessly ply their trade in domestic cricket the spectre of the level above them looms large and omnipotent.
For some, climbing the next rung on the ladder is a genuine possibility, and it is for these that the struggle is most intense.
The fate of these players on the cusp of international recognition ultimately rests on the whims and preferences of a small number of selectors, and, more frequently so, it appears that not only runs and wickets can appease the increasingly stringent demands on players being selected for international cricket.
Thus, especially ahead of a winter tour, as the home summer hurtles towards a close, the fight for remaining squad places suddenly becomes especially feisty. Every training session, drill and interview, as well as runs and wickets, suddenly assumes disproportionate importance to those players believed to be under consideration. It's not so much "Big Brother Is Watching You," as "Geoff Miller Is Watching You."
Such bitter scrapping for places can create intriguing dynamics amongst opposition players in domestic cricket and indeed, at times, teammates.
No case is more pertinent than that of the Waugh brothers. For the 1991 Adelaide Test against England, Mark made his debut, but his brother Steve paid for his run of poor form by being dropped. In his book, Steve acknowledges the gaucheness of the situation, saying "Mum was in a state of simultaneous elation for Mark and distress for me, while my brother couldn't fully show his joy at being chosen, even after such a long apprenticeship."
Seven days after the conclusion of the ongoing NatWest ODI Series against Australia, England will name what is expected to be a 16-man Ashes squad, making and breaking hearts of those in contention.
With three ODIs, two rounds of County Championship, and the YB40 Final remaining before that date, the rat race for selection is hurtling towards its final rites. Indeed, in years gone by a strong performance in the YB40 Final equivalent (traditionally the curtain closer of the English season) could've been enough to see in a surprise final member sneak into that winter's touring squad—but things are very different now.
The majority of England's squad for this winter's Ashes series picks itself, with question marks only remaining over only three or four members.
In light of Monty Panesar's recent off-pitch troubles, Graeme Swann's spin bowling partner is a matter of debate, as is the position of the final reserve seamer, thought to be between Boyd Rankin, Chris Woakes and Graham Onions. But more intriguing is the scrap for the No. 6 batting place and the reserve batsman.
Jonny Bairstow, who played in four of the five Ashes Tests this summer, albeit unconvincingly, is widely expected to retain his place in the squad, with his wicket-keeping proving to be a contributing factor. That would leave one place up for grabs and a multitude of players who can lay claim to it.
James Taylor, who was named in the squad for the Ashes Test at Old Trafford as cover for Kevin Pietersen, is technically next in line. But interim ODI captain Eoin Morgan, perennial contender Ravi Bopara, Yorkshire's Gary Ballance and even more obscure names such as Michael Carberry and Moeen Ali have been suggested from some quarters.
Taylor is most certainly the front-runner and has more opportunities to impress, including the televised YB40 Final, than any other player in contention. However, Morgan, Carberry and Bopara playing on the international stage, although in a different format, have the chance to make a case against the very opposition England will meet this winter.
Bopara is an interesting name to ponder. His return to form in limited-overs cricket this summer has been spectacular, and he offers an increasingly useful bowling option. What's more England have paid precious little attention to first-class runs with recent Test selections Morgan, Bairstow and Joe Root based as much on perceived potential as anything tangible, something that could help Bopara, who has struggled for runs in championship cricket.
Morgan and Ballance meanwhile are two players who, with their aggressive innovation and power, would bring an extra dimension to the batting order. And if England are looking for a spare batsman who could open the batting if required, then Carberry and Ali come into contention. But it's worth noting that the Performance Squad will also be in Australia throughout the series, making any injuries easy to cover, thus the final batsmen should be selected on merit rather than with bias towards a particular role.
The absence of Nick Compton in England's plans should serve as as ghostly reminder of the perils of modern-day selection. Compton, who failed to impose himself on the opening slot without drastically under performing would, in another era, still be involved with the England team.
However, there's a suspicion Compton's face didn't quite fit into the setup and his talents were doubted from an early stage, ergo he now finds himself back on the treadmill of county cricket, his international days most probably behind him, his childhood dream, something he's been working towards all his life, reduced to dust. Although he'll make a comfortable living from county cricket, it's a totally different world.
Thus, it's clear that the very finest details can make the difference between being chosen or not being chosen. And as the long and ferocious English season careers towards its close, every player will be fighting and scrapping for every inch of credit in the eternal grapple to appease the frighteningly omnipotent panel of selectors.
The Selection Run-In: Matches Remaning
|Jonny Bairstow (Yorkshire)||Sussex (LVCC)||Middlesex (LVCC)||Surrey (LVCC)||-|
|James Taylor (Nottinghamshire)||Middlesex (LVCC)||Durham (LVCC)||Somerset (LVCC)||Glamorgan (YB40)|
|Eoin Morgan (England)||Australia (ODI)||Australia (ODI)||Australia (ODI)||-|
|Ravi Bopara (England)||Australia (ODI)||Australia (ODI)||Australia (ODI)||-|
|Michael Carberry (England)||Australia (ODI)||Australia (ODI)||Australia (ODI)||-|
|Gary Ballance (Yorkshire)||Sussex (LVCC)||Middlesex (LVCC)||Surrey (LVCC)||-|
|Moeen Ali (Worcestershire)||Hampshire (LVCC)||Northamptonshire (LVCC)||-||-|
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