Let’s start at the top and the openers. It is hard to see Alastair Cook being replaced between now and a years time, barring a monumental loss of form. Cook hasn’t scored a Test hundred since his 119 in Sri Lanka in December, however, he struck a 50 in each game against South Africa.
Consideration may be given to Michael Vaughan being recalled and moved up to open with Cook, with Strauss dropping out. Certainly the left/right handed combination has some appeal and they have shown success with hundred partnerships in Sri Lanka and strong starts in New Zealand.
However, Vaughan may be better in the middle order due to his lack of footwork early on in his innings and against the new ball, this could prove fatal. Strauss has shown signs of regaining his world beating form but the technical deficiencies still haunt him and he will need millions of runs on both England tours to convince the selectors.
There is also the Kent pair of Rob Key and Joe Denly, who continue to threaten to get into the side. Key has played for England before without ever fully convincing—that said, he has a Test double hundred to his name, albeit against a mediocre West Indies side. Denly looks a great prospect, but next summer may be too soon for him and he looks to be destined to begin his international career in the one day arena first.
Into the middle order and Ian Bell should bat number three, providing Cook bats with Vaughan or Strauss at the top of the order. Captain Pietersen will come in at number four regardless so the real issue is who bats at three and at five. If Vaughan is recalled, he could play at either. One suspects he would be more at home at number three leaving Bell to go back to five, where he played this summer.
Alternatively, Bell could retain his first drop batting position and Vaughan could provide security down at number five. Middlesex’s Owais Shah could be included given his impressive batting both for his county and in one day cricket. Shah would likely bat at five leaving Vaughan and Bell to fight it out for that number three spot.
Shah’s batting has won him praise from all quarters and if he is selected this winter then the weight of runs could mean his inclusion against the Aussies.
Both offer a medium pace bowling option and have strong claims to be in the side. Collingwood is seen as a great team man whereas Bopara has undoubted batting talent. Both men could even play at one spot higher should Vaughan and Shah be left out altogether.
All this being said, it should and hopefully will be Flintoff. His batting against South Africa suggested he was back somewhere close to his imperious best and although it will take more runs this winter to convince the selectors, he should be able to make the number six position his own as it is clear that Pietersen wants him there as part of a five man attack. The balance of the side looks so much better with a fit and firing Fred and Pietersen knows it.
Ambrose seems unlikely to get his spot back and Prior’s form in the one day series looks to have secured him a second chance. Essex’s James Foster is also being tipped to get a chance and the two of them will slug it out to impress the most this winter.
Finally the bowling attack and we’ll start with the spinner. It should be Monty Panesar but I wouldn't blame the selectors for maybe looking elsewhere for a little bit. Shane Warne recently opined that Panesar "has not played 33 Test matches, he has played the same match 33 times," meaning he has absolutely no variation. And he’s right.
Panesar, although talented, seems to be going through a transitional period where he is unable to take wickets in clusters and gets hit around too much. He seems to have lost his pizzazz, his X factor. He will provide a threat but he should be looking over his shoulder at who is threatening his position.
Adil Rashid is that rarest of birds—an English leg spinner who bats like a dream. He is too young for now and probably too young for next summer but if he is selected to tour India and plays for some reason, then he could really impress and he would offer a more all round package than Monty, with his athletic fielding and high quality batting.
The same can be said of Graeme Swann and Samit Patel. These three are still however not as good as Monty when it comes to bowling but he might just want to think about his game a little bit.
The seamers provide more of a selection headache. Realistically, Pietersen looks to be able to choose from Steve Harmison, James Anderson, Ryan Sidebottom, Stuart Broad, Chris Tremlett, Simon Jones, Matthew Hoggard, and anyone from left field such as Durham’s Graham Onions.
Pietersen was instrumental in getting Steve Harmison back into the team and should he perform enough during the winter, he will definitely be in the side for the simple reason that Pietersen wants the Aussies to face a fired up Harmison propelling 90mph rockets at them. His showing at the Oval vs. South Africa promised much but England will want to thread lightly with him, given his past record.
So with Harmison, Flintoff and Panesar seemingly sure of three of the five bowling places, who fills the other two. To start, they will want someone to open the bowling with Harmison and I believe they are choosing from James Anderson and Ryan Sidebottom.
Matthew Hoggard looks to have no way back for England now so it will be down to these swing masters. Sidebottom is arguably the more reliable of the two and his left arm swing adds crucial variation.
To be honest, the decision depends on fitness. Whoever is in the best shape and form will probably get the spot. My gut tells me Anderson but Sidebottom is no bad option to have waiting in the wings and he could be brought in to the side should the conditions heavily favour swing bowling.
The last bowling spot should go to Stuart Broad. He is still young and learning but he has so much promise and he adds crucial depth to the batting with his number eight abilities. Broad’s bowling was criticised this summer but he did well in bursts and should develop enough this winter to be enough of a handful to the masterful Australian batting order next summer.
Should he not improve sufficiently to give Pietersen peace of mind then the last spot could go to Simon Jones, should he regain full fitness. He bowled fantastically well this summer in domestic cricket when he was fit and almost made it back into the England side but injury again let him down.
He is a great option to have with his dynamic reverse swing and pace but there are career long doubts over his long term fitness. Chris Tremlett offers good speed and bounce but is maybe too similar to Harmison and shouldn’t be able to force his way into contention, barring a miracle or devastating injury crisis.
So, having picked my way through the whole team, I am left with an 11 of:
Kevin Petersen [c]
Matt Prior [wk]
It is clear Pietersen likes to do thing his way and getting HIS players out onto the pitch. If he can get the best from the likes of Harmison and Anderson then England could have a dangerous bowling attack. If Ian Bell can finally win over his doubters he will make a stable number three.
Vaughan provides experience in the middle order along side the explosiveness of Pietersen, Flintoff and Prior. The only concerns are with the opening partnership and Strauss should be performing out of his skin to get there or I’d expect Rob Key to be recalled to open, giving the right/left balance that England like at the top of the order.
It’s a year away, but the excitement is tangible. KP talks a fantastic game; now can he get his team to deliver one against the very best?