Seldom has selection for England’s marquee Ashes series been announced against such a backdrop, with activities off the field dominating press interest and catapulting cricket from the back to the front pages.
England’s selectors convened on Tuesday as shockwaves started to reverberate through the sport with news still filtering through of Ben Stokes’ arrest in Bristol.
Told to pick a squad based purely on form and fitness, the selectors included their talisman in the squad – for now at least. A question mark hangs over his participation as police and internal ECB disciplinary investigations continue. He has not been charged with any offence.
Stokes’ arrest was always going to cast a long shadow over the make-up of the squad but even without nagging doubts over his involvement, there is a distinct touch of make do and mend about the selection.
Indeed, the squad announcement, before Wednesday’s one-day international, seemed almost apologetically uninspiring as the selectors outlined reasons for reaching back to the recent past to plug gaps with players who underwhelmed in previous stints in Test cricket.
Admittedly things are far from ideal going into the winter. Despite recent series wins against South Africa and the West Indies, the batting line-up is still far from settled after an indifferent summer from England’s top order, while injuries to two key bowlers have added further to the selectors’ woes.
Deciding that an Ashes tour is not the place to blood any of the promising, young batsmen in county cricket, the selectors have instead gone back to James Vince and Gary Ballance. It was, as coach Trevor Bayliss said, a bit of a gut call.
While a dogged performance from Vince this week went a long way to ensure Hampshire retained their precarious Division One status, the talented 26-year-old scored just 738 runs in 21 Championship innings this summer and averaged a shade over 35. His weaknesses driving outside off-stump were exploited by the opposition during his previous spell in Test cricket, in which his highest score in seven matches was just 42. He will get little respite in Australia.
Chairman of selectors James Whittaker though is backing Vince for the challenge ahead: “Considering what we’re going to face in Australia, the type of cricket we’ll need to play, we felt evaluating his performances in all forms of cricket over the last few years, we just feel he’s got the type of game, the back-foot game, attacking game.
“It will give Joe [Root] and Trevor the option of that type of player at the top of the order and we’ve got every confidence that James’s game will suit Australian conditions. He’s shown glimpses over the last few months of really good form, but he’ll admit that he’s got unfinished business at Test level. He’s very keen to put his Test record right.
“No-one’s got a crystal ball, but we’ve got faith that his game will withstand the conditions and the type of bowlers that he’s got to face. He’s got a lot of hard work to do as everyone has, but we’re confident that he’ll do well.
With Root likely to continue in his preferred spot at number four, despite Bayliss’ clear preference for the skipper to bat three, Vince will compete with Ballance to come in at first drop, although the Yorkshire captain could also challenge Dawid Malan for the number five spot.
Ballance disappointed on his recall against South Africa earlier this summer before a broken finger ruled him out of contention for the rest of the series. Despite a glut of runs for Yorkshire, his second Test recall failed to recall the dizzy heights of his first spell in international cricket when he became the third fastest English batsman to four figures.
Whittaker is confident – that word again – that Ballance can come again: “We all know Gary’s record, which is brilliant in domestic cricket, brilliant at the start of his international career.
“Obviously he’s keen to put the recent record right, but we felt with his determination to come back to Yorkshire, captain Yorkshire as he’s done really well, score the amount of runs he did in domestic cricket, we think he’s got the toughness and character and the backfoot game that will also thrive and give Joe and Trevor the best option in that middle order section.
“He’s aware of vulnerabilities, but like everyone else, no-one’s perfect, no-one has a perfect technique, but we believe that Gary has a toughness of character that can thrive in those conditions and support his captain.”
Meanwhile, Mark Stoneman has done enough in his three Tests against the West Indies to convince the selectors that he has the qualities and character to live up to his nickname of Rocky and anchor the top of the innings as Alistair Cook’s opening partner. Tom Westley misses out after a lacklustre summer in testing batting conditions and will likely tour Australia with the Lions instead.
Bayliss told Sky Sports that Westley was unlucky to miss out: “It was very close, number three was one of the positions we had a long discussion over. In the end it was more about the positive what we thought someone like James Vince could bring us, the type of game he’s got, we discussed for a while, the type of game he’s got could be successful in Australia, strong off the back foot, square of the wicket, offside, legside, he drives well. Yes, he might nick off a few times, but so can everyone else at the top of the order.”
It’s hardly stirring stuff, but as Bayliss admitted: “It’s not perfect, we acknowledge that, we’d love two or three other guys to be sticking their hands up averaging 50+ in international cricket and it’s a foregone conclusion that they’re in, so to a certain degree with some of the positions we’ve had to make a bit of a gut call.”
On the plus side, there can be little argument over the claims made by Surrey keeper Ben Foakes, who travels to Australia, initially at least, as Jonny Bairstow’s understudy.
England’s finest natural keeper, Foakes has developed as a reliable member of the Surrey batting line-up in the past few years and has eight first-class hundreds to his name at the age of 24. While Whittaker said the selectors had not discussed him playing him as keeper in the same team as Bairstow, he added: “Ben Foakes is a high-quality keeper and a high-quality batsman. He’s shown over the last two years his ability with the bat, he’s working very hard, but he makes a very good, initially, understudy for Jonny.”
The selection dashes Jos Buttler’s hopes of playing in his second Ashes series. Despite his wealth of international experience, his lack of red ball cricket must have counted against him, the selectors now appearing to view him as a white ball specialist.
Somerset will have mixed feelings over the other debutants in the squad, celebrating the call-up of their own fast-bowling all-rounder Craig Overton, while ruing the selection of Hampshire leg-spinner Mason Crane over Jack Leach.
Overton’s elevation is well deserved after taking responsibility for overcoming his own disciplinary problems early in his career. He has spearheaded the Somerset attack over the past couple of seasons and recorded his maiden first-class ton.
Whittaker is confident that Overton can cope with the extra scrutiny he will get in Australia: “I haven’t investigated anger management per se. He’s played in Lions cricket over in Australia before, I’ve spoken to Marcus Trescothick and Matt Maynard and reviewed it through the year, because we he was on a list of seven or eight bowlers we were monitoring quite closely.
“We recognised over the last couple of years 80-odd wickets, he’s led the Somerset attack, he’s a very strong individual. He’s a very competitive individual and a very athletic one and we think he’ll offer Trevor and Joe the opportunity to have the type of character they need, the type of skill they need on those wickets. Through sustained performances over the last couple of years he’s thoroughly deserved his Ashes tour.”
Crane’s selection means Leach, England’s leading spinner, is overlooked by England for the second year running, despite taking more than 50 wickets in each of the last two seasons.
Crane, who has played far less cricket than Leach this summer was a non-playing member of the England squad during the recent series against the West Indies and the selectors clearly feel a man who has already played state cricket in Australia has something of an x-factor about him.
Bayliss explained to Sky Sports: “Jack can count himself unlucky and I’d like to think he’d be on that Lions tour as well and close by just in case we do need him.
“That number three position and the spin position were probably the two areas that we spent a lot of time on, but from Mason’s point of view, we did have him around during the season. He’s highly regarded as a spin bowler with his mentality and his competitive nature, not just what he does with the ball, but in Australia, a leg-spin bowler is going to get more bounce than the orthodox bowlers and in Australia on those harder wickets the bounce can take wickets.”
With Toby Roland-Jones injured after an impressive start to his Test career and Mark Wood still yet to fully recover his fitness, the selectors have given the final seam bowling position to Jake Ball, who beat off challenges from Steven Finn and Liam Plunkett.
Wood’s extra pace will be missed, although is likely to make the Lions trip as he rebuilds his fitness.
Whittaker explained: “We asked Mark to go away and play some county cricket the last month in the hope that he would be able to sustain his fitness over a period of time, build up some stamina and form, but that hasn’t been the case unfortunately.
“He was absolutely desperate to have been included, but he will go out and shadow the first team with the Lions, build up some stamina and be available if necessary later on provided he gets fit. He’s absolutely gutted because we know his point of difference as a bowler.”
The frailty of England’s top order aside, the tourists will again depend on the guaranteed runs from Cook and Root and their formidable middle order, with Bairstow oozing confidence after breaking through in one-day cricket and Moen Ali developing into a genuine all-rounder.
But England know only too well Stokes’ ability to turn a game on its head with bat or ball and don’t underestimate the balance he brings to the side as a key member of that middle order. Reports in the Telegraph though are that England are already looking at alternatives should he not tour, which would necessitate some late changes to the squad. An uphill battle to retain the urn down under has grown immeasurably harder.
While Strauss and Bayliss will look afresh at discipline within the England set-up, the former England captain thinks the squad can use this week’s experience as an opportunity: “In my experience of the England team, we’ve experienced similar things in the past and you can go one of two ways, you can actually bring people closer together or it can allow people to split off into splinter groups and whatever.”
Strauss added: “What I’m very encouraged about is how tight that team environment is at the moment. I’d be exceptionally hopeful that they’ll use this
as an opportunity to galvanise things, to bring them closer together to focus their minds on what they need to achieve in Australia and to ensure that they give themselves the best possible chance of performing.”
England Ashes squad: Joe Root (c), Moeen Ali, Jimmy Anderson, Jonny Bairstow, Jake Ball, Gary Ballance, Stuart Broad, Alastair Cook, Mason Crane, Ben Foakes, Dawid Malan, Craig Overton, Ben Stokes, Mark Stoneman, James Vince, Chris Woakes.
Main Photo: Embed from Getty Images