Having said on Monday that it’s “all about the Ashes” in a less than happy way, I have to confront my own position. Now the home test series are over, the next task is the Ashes, and we know, still, it just about has some form of pull on the cricket world, and here. While we feel the general sense of disillusionment with all the game brings with it, it is going to be the proper 2 ½ years between the two old foes going at it, so allow me to get a little bit enthused. For me, and I suspect some others, this is test cricket’s last throw of the dice. If this is a poor quality, poor test series, I don’t honestly know where we go from here. Down to the T20 pier I fear. A new love is hard to find, after all.
After the test summer, we need to look at who might be going, and who might not. I’m not going to dissect the selection quandaries, rather make some observations. It was interesting to read the comments of some of the journalists regarding the selection for the upcoming Ashes. Interesting in that Bayliss has said that if he has anything to do with it, there will be no “flyers” from outside the squad or the playing pool from the last 18 months. This is an admirable approach so it seems, but where is it coming from?
Why would you shut down other options at this stage? What if one of those mentioned in dispatches suddenly strings together a run of excellent scores at the end of the season? For example, if Liam Livingstone ran off a couple of big tons after his double a week or so ago, why would he be more a risky selection than Tom Westley or Dawid Malan who have not pulled up any trees against an opposition bowling line-up that won’t be in Australia’s league? What if Nick Browne outperformed his Essex colleague in the final games to get Essex over the line? How about if Sam Robson batted Middlesex to safety having been out of the England order since 2014? Ben Duckett could be considered due to this logic, but Sam Northeast, who consistently seems to score runs, reprises his role of the younger generation’s James Hildreth. Sam is averaging 55, yes in Division 2, but this is no spring chicken. Maybe someone has seen something in the past.
I’m not lobbying for Northeast, but the fact that Bayliss seems unwilling to work with what he doesn’t know, just because it is the Ashes, doesn’t compute to me. Australia blew up their batting line-up after Hobart last year, and came across Renshaw and Handscomb. This against a tough South African bowling line-up, albeit a little on the downward curve after clinching the series. Both are now ensconced having made runs. We will be playing three players who have had a few tests each and not really, in truth, looked like nailing it down at all. Westley played a few nice shots early on, a number of the media fell in love quicker than a repressed teenager, only to have their ardour thrown back in their face in what should now be called Hameed Syndrome.
Oh, and on to young Hameed. Again, I have to say this, I really, really want to see the kid succeed. Nothing would give me more pleasure. But agonising over every painstaking, woefully out of nick, half century isn’t going to do it. It’s like revisiting the woes of Ben Hollioake all over again. Let him get on in peace, get himself back to form, and become a player in his own time. In his recent piece Newman insists that “Hameed has to be on the plane” which defies all logic. You want to take a player along who has made two (is it) half centuries all season? Why? Magic beans based on a competent debut against India? Take his age out of it – is he selectable in a way that, say Steven Finn wasn’t despite also proving his test class time and again? I simply don’t know why HH has got them all giddy. I saw one commenter on the Guardian say, within two lines, that Rashid could not be picked for England because of his poor summer, but that HH should go as the third opener!
Newman is nailing his colours to the Alex Hales mast. I am not actually as rabidly against that per se, but he did have his chance over quite a period of time and didn’t take it. That was opening, and it may be he thrives down the order.
On the bowling front, the debate is pretty settled. Clearly Broad, Anderson, Woakes and TRJ will be going (to drop TRJ would be incredible given his start). Moeen is the one spinner, and probably Crane will be the other (Aussie state experience and the fact that Adil is persona non grata). There might be room for another – Wood or Ball given we can’t go outside the last 18 months – and Finn hasn’t exactly staked a claim for recall. This leaves the excitement to a back-up keeper. Why we would choose anyone other than Jos Buttler, despite not pulling up any trees, given the constraints on selection I don’t know.
There remains a sneaking suspicion, though, that to go for a wild card, one of those hunch selections that sometimes come off in Ashes tours down under (but more frequently don’t), might infer weakness or incompetence. The selectors have not pulled a batting rabbit out of the hutch since Gary Ballance, and he soon succumbed to cricketing myxomatosis when he stopped scoring runs, and possibly as more of an indicator, siren voices mentioned technical flaws and GB’s unwillingness to countenance changing them. Ballance suffered from having a batting style only his mother and James Whitaker could love, and while racking up 6 tons in 103 test innings has you a stalwart of the side, 4 centuries in your first 10 tests doesn’t prevent you from getting the axe. So given Ballance is rabbit stew now, the rest of the batting hopes haven’t been as good as him. To punt for someone else may lead people to believe our selectors don’t know what they are doing. Perish the thought.
For me, and I know some of our other scribes, the position of Trevor Bayliss seems rather odd. He’s actively, or maybe passively, made it clear he knows little about county cricket. He seems a little resistant to get out there, like the old school, and run the rule over players. He seemed reticent over Mark Stoneman, but then when he has worked with him, made comments about how he likes him as an unfussy, organised cricketer. Bayliss, and Farbrace the Untouchable, have presided over a maddeningly inconsistent England team. Their fielding has fallen off a cliff. They can play matches of unutterable nonsense, lose the plot every bit as much as the Moores teams of yore. There seems, though, barely a murmur from the media about him. It’s as if his invisible man nature is a virtue. No-one is writing Flower-like eulogies for him in the press. No-one seems to think that he’s a liability either. Maybe people don’t care as much. I’m really not sure.
The 2017/18 Ashes are going to pit two floored teams together. Who will survive? I think England will lose, potentially heavily depending on how fit the Aussie bowling attack will be. The team is too flawed, and the talent pipeline is drying up. Newman can say we have a world class spine, but the problem with this team, frequently, is when it is behind it has no backbone. Blaming that on three players making their way is one thing. But look at some of the established players, and their inconsistency and you have the nub of the issue. However, we will be watching on BT Sport, and not Sky, which brings me on to my next piece in the next day or so.
TV coverage (don’t worry Bogfather, you can have your go soon as well!)