Who would be an England selector? Just as England seem to finally find a solution to their long standing wicketkeeper problems, suddenly they need to fill the two spaces either side of Matt Prior in the batting order. The selection of the Test party to South Africa this winter shows that they still have no idea who is likely to fill them.
Let’s start with the fifth specialist batsman position. Strauss and Pietersen are nailed on selections. The stock of Jonathan Trott has risen even more since his debut hundred in the cauldron of an Ashes battle, as much due to his teammates ineptitude since then than his own solid form for Warwickshire. It seems more and more likely that he will take over the problematic position of three, coming in after the captain and Alastair Cook.
Cook once again seems to have benefited from being slightly less awful than those below him. England have again chosen no backup opener, which shows remarkable faith in a man with a batting average which has struggled to stay above 40 since 2008, and who has made just two hundreds against a weak West Indies side in that time. A lot of time has been invested in Cook, and now it is time to repay that with cold, hard runs.
The next pick is less obvious. Bell and Collingwood, two men who have drunk so often at the last chance saloon that they have their own tankards above the bar, are again the two fighting for that position. Both often find themselves vying for the same slot, and they have almost mirror-image batting statistics.
However, the similarities end there. Bell is the most infuriating of batsmen, who can look like the best batsman in the world on his day, but on others looks like the most timid of tail enders. Collingwood on the other hand has always looked like he is punching above his weight, often making batting look painful while steadfastly refusing to give his wicket away. That at least one of these two is again certain to play is worrying.
Would the selection of Joe Denly or Michael Carberry not have been wise, whether in addition to or instead of Bell or Collingwood? Both are good fielders, and both could also open which would keep Cook on his toes. Is that not the perfect criteria for a “tour batsman”? As it is, England have now made the same mistake Australia did in the summer—if any batsmen loses fitness or form, they are struggling.
When it comes to the No. 7 position, England have done completely the opposite. Luke Wright, Liam Plunkett, Adil Rashid, Stuart Broad and Matt Prior could all end up there.
Prior will only be there if England decide to pick six batsmen, which would mean that Anderson, Onions, and Broad would all have increased pressure to perform and the cutters and swingers of Collingwood would become more important. With Onions still finding his way in international cricket and Broad still inconsistent, this would be a daring selection.
The other option is to fill it with an all-rounder. Of the plethora of options England have given themselves, Wright is the strongest batsman but the weakest bowler. Having been shunted around the batting order in the ODI arena, he has yet to show any of the form he has showed at various time for Sussex. His selection smacks of a desperation to find the new Flintoff—his time may come, but this may just be a tour too soon.
Broad is guaranteed a place in the first Test, and a selection of him and Plunkett at seven and eight (whichever way round) would be a bold choice. Plunkett comes off the back of an excellent season in county cricket, and will now hopefully begin to become the bowling all-rounder he promised to be four years ago.
The other option is to select Adil Rashid, which would be a huge decision. Possibly, he could take on the role of partnership breaker, which England have struggled to do of late. However, in a series in South Africa against the likes of Kallis, Smith, and de Villiers, and judging by how reluctant England have been to push him too much, it would be a complete U-turn on their policy to throw him in at the deep-end now.
Strauss, Cook, Trott, Pietersen, Prior, Broad, Anderson, Swann and Onions are all, barring something very peculiar, certain to start at Centurion on December 16. Bar Davies and perhaps Sidebottom, every other player will feel they have a genuine shot at filling the other two spaces.
More than at any time since ironically the 99/00 tour to South Africa, an England touring party has raised more questions than answers.