For once, a selection announcement passed with little surprise.
After it was made clear that former skipper Michael Vaughan would not be considered for selection—and rightly so given his form in recent months—there wasn’t much to be argued about the selection of players to make up the Test squad for India this December.
Should a back-up wicketkeeper be taken? Yes, clearly so, and given that Matt Prior was already going to be in India with the One-day squad his selection was no big deal.
The likes of James Foster and Chris Read might feel hard done by, but they haven’t been given much of a shot by the selectors over the past three years and clearly aren’t currently in the selectors’ plans.
With the batting line-up more-or-less nailed down to include Andrew Strauss, Alistair Cook, Ian Bell, Kevin Pietersen and Paul Collingwood, there is little in the way of controversy of the sort generated by David Gower’s omission from the 1992-93 touring side, let alone a D’Oliveiran crisis. Much more pressing is the question of the fringe elements of the squad.
Who should take the one batting place that was up for grabs? Owais Shah or Ravi Bopara?
Bopara may be disappointed given that he was in the squad for the last Test against South Africa, and had an excellent summer for Essex scoring over 1250 First-class runs at an average of more than 50, but he did not impress on last winter’s tour of Sri Lanka, scoring just 42 runs in five innings.
Shah, on the other hand, is considered an excellent player of spin, scoring 88 and 38 in his one Test the last time England toured India, and must be due another shot, having only had one chance since.
Your milage on this decision will vary on whether you think that Bopara’s skills or Shah’s will be more important to the team in India, but given that ultimately neither may play if five bowlers are selected, it may be a moot point.
Next we turn to the seam bowling department. Here there are a selection of players in good recent form. Steve Harmison clearly made his case at The Oval, and Andrew Flintoff will certainly play—whether he bats at six or seven is still to be decided, but he’ll play either way.
The third seamer should be James Anderson given his performances this summer, which leaves Ryan Sidebottom and Stuart Broad fighting for the final place in the team with the second spinner.
Matthew Hoggard misses out on the squad, more or less as expected. He had the misfortune to get injured earlier in the summer just as he was in good form and in the frame for a recall. Had he not broken his thumb in a county match, he might have regained his spot before Flintoff and Harmison got their call ups.
A haul of 45 First-class wickets despite the injury showed that he still hasn’t lost it, but now finds his way back into the team barred by other options. Darren Pattinson’s call-up for the Headingley match seemed to have finally convinced the Yorkshireman that he wasn’t in the selectors’ thoughts.
Kabir Ali will also feel disheartened that leading the Worcestershire attack to promotion and taking 59 wickets at less than 19 runs apiece was not enough for a recall, but he will have to wait his turn—he needs to show that he can take wickets in Division One as well, and convince the selectors that he’s a better bet than Liam Plunkett, Sajid Mahmood, Simon Jones, Charlie Shreck, Graham Onions, or James Tomlinson.
Finally we turn to the second spinner. Monty Panesar will undoubtedly bowl a lot of overs at Mumbai and Ahmedebad, but given England’s propensity for reliance on their seam attack, a second spinner may get far fewer overs.
Indeed, the BBC Website report on the squad announcement indicated that Shah may even be considered a spin option, let alone captain Kevin Pietersen.
As it is, Graeme Swann has been selected ahead of Samit Patel and Adil Rashid for the second spinner slot, a move that makes sense in my view.
Firstly, both Patel and Rashid spin the ball in the same direction as Panesar, so Swann’s off-spin adds variety if it is needed.
He is also a more experienced player, and there will be less of a negative impact if he doesn’t get to play. Whilst I can advocate taking along a new player to gain from the experience of touring with the full squad, this isn’t the sort of situation where it would do a great deal of help—there are only two Tests and with the uncertainty over the need for a second specialist spinner, it would only add pressure to a young debutant.
Swann’s role should be to reprise that of Shaun Udal two years ago, who helped whip out the Indian tail on the final day, but otherwise not to expect much in the way of participation.
Finally, Rashid has developed well this summer in a conducive environment at Yorkshire, scoring 500 runs and picking up 65 wickets in First-class cricket, and needs to continue the learning process if he is to develop into a Test player of high quality.
He’ll have that opportunity touring with the “Development” squad (an “A” squad by any other name)—he’ll be guaranteed plenty of overs on a surface that takes turn, and will get the chance to bat in the lower middle order. In the Test squad it’s uncertain whether he would get a game, and would be limited in his opportunities.
Overall, the squad is well balanced and has the necessary cover. There are no shocks despite the underperformance during the summer against New Zealand and South Africa.
My XI for Ahmedebad: Cook, Strauss, Shah, Pietersen, Bell, Collingwood, Flintoff, Ambrose, Anderson, Harmison, Panesar.