Thursday, 28 September 2017

Ashes squad assessment

So, the whole Ben Stokes business has rather overshadowed the announcement of the actual Ashes squad, but reaction to it generally was pretty negative. Several pundits, including Jonathan Agnew, have called it weak, with others even describing it as the weakest Ashes squad they can remember.

Well, I'd take all that with a pinch of salt, for starters. I can remember several previous England squads being described in the same way, most notably in 1986-87, when it was widely predicted that a resurgent Australia would thrash us. In fact, we won 2-1, but the scoreline flattered the home side hugely. We went into the series with no idea who our openers would be – one of them, Chris Broad, scored three centuries and was man of the series. Incidentally, I can also remember it happening in reverse more than once, with Australian sides arriving on these shores being described as the worst-ever. 1989, anyone?

Still, there's plenty to quibble with in the team the selectors have picked. Gary Ballance, for a start. He may have a great first-class average, and his test average of 37 is OK, but he started his test career well and has been getting steadily worse, as quality seam attacks have discovered exactly where to bowl to him, given his lack of foot movement. I can't see him performing any better in Australia, whether he bats at 3 or 5.

The selection of James Vince is similarly strange, although in its defence, this will be only his second chance (Ballance is on, what, his fifth?), and there's reason to think that his technique might be suited to Australian pitches. But to be honest, I wouldn't have taken either. They have good reasons for not wanting to plunge newcomers into the fray, but if they had to go back to someone from the past, why not Alex Hales (who also has a technique suited to Aussie pitches, and who has played successfully there)?

I don't understand the selection of Mason Crane as the second spinner - he's struggled to get into Hampshire's team most of the season, while over at Somerset Jack Leach has turned in a second consecutive 60-wicket year (despite having to remodel his action). More to the point, the second spinner will probably spend most of the series carrying drinks, and only be called upon if Moeen is injured or suffers a catastrophic loss of form. If they do get the call, they're more likely to be asked to do a holding job than to become an instant match-winner, and Leach seems a much better bowler in that respect.

Finally, the wicketkeepers. Ben Foakes is probably the best actual keeper in the country, and he can bat a bit, too. But as with the spinners, he's only likely to play if the man in possession, Jonny Bairstow, gets injured. In that situation, coming in cold (because there are few matches outside the tests), is he really likely to hit the ground running? Jos Buttler, on the other hand, is one of those batsmen for whom both form and pressure seem to be irrelevant – he plays the same way whatever. He has underachieved for England in tests, but he seems to me to be the best back-up for Bairstow we have, and far more likely to play a match-winning (or even series-winning) innings should he make the side.

There's also the point that Andrew Miller makes towards the end of this article. Buttler, whatever his failings, has a better test record than most of the batting options they've considered and/or taken, despite having played largely as a keeper. So why is he excluded? I think, to some extent, they've started judging Buttler against the player they think he could and should be, rather than against his peers. It's what used to happen with Graeme Hick – yes, he was disappointing when judged against the 'new Bradman' some thought he could be, but his test record was better than all the batsmen they used to bring in to replace him after a couple of failures.