England Take a Backward Step with Gareth Batty Recall

Gareth Batty
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English cricket was in a dark place following the 2015 World Cup. Out-played, out-fought and out-powered, they played cricket in much the same way they had for the last twenty years. Stuck in the dark ages it made for rather desperate viewing.

Fast forward to the present day and England’s one-day side is in rude health. Since their dismal group-stage exit from the World Cup they have scored over 350 on six occasions, have scored the highest ever ODI score (444-3 against Pakistan earlier this year) and Alex Hales’ 171 in the same match broke Robin Smith’s long-held record for England’s highest ODI innings.

The man who has arguably done the most to lead the revolution has been Andrew Strauss. Appointed Director of English Cricket in May 2015 he has quickly made his mark. The dismissal of coach Peter Moores was by no means a difficult choice to make but the appointment of Trevor Bayliss and Paul Farbrace in his place appear, for the moment at least, masterful.

The Kevin Pietersen saga was put to rest once and for all and central contracts have been bought up to date. Splitting them for the first time between Test and limited overs contracts is a huge boost for England’s one day stars.

Not that Strauss is infallible by any stretch – his belief that multi-format “Super Series” will modernise international cricket is doomed to failure. But things are moving generally in the right direction at least.

A significant development this summer has been the changes to the coin toss in the County Championship. Instead of a mandatory coin toss to determine who had the choice of batting or bowling first, the visiting team were allowed to bowl first if they so desired.

It was an effort to reduce the number of poor pitches which had, in recent seasons, seen matches finish quickly and to aid the development of spin bowlers. The long-term effects of the move are yet to be felt but the early signs are positive.

Which makes it all the more baffling that England have called up the 38-year-old Gareth Batty for their tour of Bangladesh. This is not to denigrate Batty who is a feisty and wily competitor and who enjoyed a solid season for newly promoted Surrey with 41 wickets at 31.21.

With Adil Rashid, Moeen Ali and Batty’s county teammate Zafar Ansari also in the squad it is likely that Batty will see limited action, if any. If he does play, he will let no-one down.

But what message does it send to those who have benefitted the most from the rule changes that he is chosen ahead of them.

Middlesex’s off-spinner Ollie Rayner was the second-highest wicket-taker for the champions and proved equally adept at running through line-ups or holding up an end. His 51 wickets are made all the more impressive considering he did not start the season in the team (and the distinct cricketing disadvantage of having been born in Germany).

Jack Leach, Somerset’s left-arm twirler-in-chief, finished the season with 65 wickets including a six-for against Yorkshire in the penultimate match as both teams vied for the title.

Aged 30 and 25 respectively, both are better long-term prospects than the old gladiator Batty. What is vital now is that they are allowed to continue their development and build on the strides they have taken this year.

For all its detractors, County Championship cricket remains a tough slog. It continues to provide a well-rounded cricketing education. However, there are limits to how far you can go and how much you can learn.

Long gone are the days when you could test yourself against a team, for instance, which included a trio of the calibre of Viv Richards, Ian Botham and Joel Garner.

With domestic cricket around the world struggling to stay relevant in a T20 world, international cricket now acts as a finishing school for more cricketers than ever. Often talent is identified early and nurtured and developed on the largest stage – think Stuart Broad or Ravindra Jadeja.

And therein lies the disappointment in not taking either Leach or Rayner to Asia. They will train over the winter and will come back next summer. They will almost definitely have good seasons again and be considered for international honours.

But they will be the poorer for having missed out on a hell of a cricketing education in the land of spin and from training and netting with players of the calibre of their international teammates.

England too will be the poorer for their omission.