Being a selector of a national team is not as easy as people think. Despite what you feel are the correct decisions, there is always someone out there who feels they could have picked a better squad. If anything, selection is just a matter of opinion, yet the trick is to make the right choices in line with the majority of those opinions.
Under Pressure Selectors Disappoint With Crane Selection
There aren’t many squads in the world scrutinised quite like an England Ashes squad, and especially one that is to tour the hot, hostile environment that is Australia. Such is the ferocious passion that goes into Ashes contests, it becomes one of the most talked about events in sport. Both sides are desperate to win. And the battle that commences is usually spectacular.
Consequently, opinions heat up upon the announcement of an Ashes squad. In fact, any England squad is met with anticipation over who doesn’t make the cut and who is the new name on the block. As a selector, no matter what squad you choose, you are going to be criticised and even on the rare occasion when criticism is limited, every decision will be analysed. It’s part of the job.
So one has to be empathetic when it comes to assessing the strength of a squad. It’s important to put yourself in the selectors’ shoes and think what alternatives there are to a pick. It’s essential to think ‘how could this squad have been stronger?’ Anyone can criticise, but coming up with the right solution is the most important thing to ponder.
So, looking at the squad that England announced on Wednesday to tour Australia, it would have been difficult not to feel uninspired. England have gone back to two batsmen who both average under 20 in the last two years in Test cricket in James Vince and Gary Ballance. Craig Overton, an uncapped seamer, has come in to replace key paceman, Toby-Roland Jones. In addition, England named young, inexperienced spinner Mason Crane as the second spinner.
They were the selections that caused most debate. Around seven or eight of England’s likely XI should pick themselves, yet who joins them will be intriguing. And as the batting will undoubtedly be under the most scrutiny ‘down under’, it is fair to start here. This is where empathy must come into play. Recalling both Vince and Ballance were indeed surprising selections but what could the selectors have done differently?
Sticking with Tom Westley at number three would have been one option, given that he scored what seemed to be a career-saving 44 not out to secure victory in the last Test of the summer at Lord’s against the West Indies. However, it became evident that Westley has significant technical problems that need to be sorted out. Overall, he struggled against the West Indies, scoring just 71 runs at 17.75 against a far weaker and inexperienced attack than the one that Australia will be fielding in the first Test at Brisbane. It would have been a risky choice.
Wherelse? Of the eight highest run scorers in Division One this season, two were overseas players (Sangakkara, Chanderpaul), four were openers (Stoneman, Burns, Browne, Davies), one is retired from Test cricket (Jonathan Trott) and the other is Gary Ballance, who was selected on this tour. The reality is that England need a solid number three, yet the lack of outstanding candidates makes it more of a hope that someone will come good eventually, rather than an expectancy.
There was the possibility of picking the talented Liam Livingstone, who has sparkled on occasions at number three for Lancashire and will surely become an international player sooner rather than later. However, given his ball-striking ability, the selectors would likely see him as more of an aggressive middle order player, instead of one who can bat and see off attacks for long periods. For however good Livingstone is, England need stability, not more positivity.
So while Vince’s record this season (626 runs at 32.94) does not scream out at someone who has necessarily deserved his place back in the side on merit, the lack of outstanding candidates and the hard nature of Australian pitches mean that the possibility of Vince being a shrewd pick still stands.
The same goes with Ballance. Although he has struggled big time since opposition sides worked out how to bowl to him, the left-hander showed some sublime early season form for Yorkshire and earned his way back into the side. The key, however, is where he bats. Given his minimal foot movement, the prospect of him at number three against a fresh Mitchell Starc is not one to encourage confidence. Yet at number five he has the chance of coming in against a slightly older ball and against a potentially tiring attack. That is his real chance and he must take it.
Should both Vince and Ballance both fail in Australia, the selectors will be in for criticism, no doubt. However, it is important to judge their decisions now, too and the fact that no potential England player really stood up this season has made their job even harder. And it has prompted them to go back to players they know. Therefore, there is room for understanding their decisions in the batting department.
Similar can be said for the selection of Overton. The selectors wanted a like-for-like replacement for Roland-Jones and in the Somerset seamer, who brings pace and plenty of bounce, they have a man who should offer something different to James Anderson, Stuart Broad and Chris Woakes. Overton did not have as prolific a season as Essex’s Jamie Porter or young Ben Coad of Yorkshire, but the selectors made the call on conditions are that is a hard reason to argue against. Besides, Overton is not a bad wicket-taker himself, claiming 46 scalps at 22.39 whilst leading the Somerset attack this season.
So while one can defend each of the selections of Vince, Ballance and Overton, it is difficult to understand the reasoning behind bringing Mason Crane to Australia. When asked why Crane was selected, James Whitaker’s response was that “has a little bit of experience in Australia, which is good. From a potential point of view, we have every confidence he will do well if selected.”
The answer was wishy-washy at best, and you could be forgiven for being in a similar state of mind when asked to justify’s Crane’s selection. And the numbers speak for themselves. While Crane did indeed take a five-wicket haul for New South Wales earlier this year, his form for his county this season has been inconsistent at best. Not only has he failed to nail down a spot in the Hampshire side, but when he has been called into action he has been ineffective, taking only 16 wickets from 12 innings at a mere average of just 44.68.
Compare those numbers to other spinners in Division One this season, and the selection becomes even more confusing. Somerset’s Jack Leach took 51 wickets this season, to go with his 65 last year, at an average of 25.78. In addition, Leach’s Somerset teammate, Dom Bess, took his 36 wickets at just 23.41 this season, showing excellent guile and control in the process. What’s more, Middlesex’s Ollie Rayner has taken 71 wickets over the last two seasons at 27.88, one of those being in a title-winning campaign.
So if Crane has been picked on ‘potential’, what does it say to the rest of those performing well in the County Championship? And what hope does it give to those vying for England spots in the future?
For the record, Mason Crane is a very talented bowler and a young man who has a bright future in the England set-up, especially in the white ball game. However, this is about England winning an Ashes series down under. And if Moeen Ali breaks down at some point during the tour, the idea of throwing in a 20-year-old, out of form debutant into an Ashes Test seems a daunting thought.
In the grand scheme of things, the second spinner’s slot may not matter too much. Yet after the blunder of picking Zafar Ansari and Gareth Batty instead of Leach to tour India, the selectors have let themselves down again by continuing to ignore the significant success that the likes of Leach are having in Division One.
Selection can be a difficult job, yes, but it is hard to sympathise when a blunder such as this has been made. Whether it has an impact on England’s chances in the Ashes, however, remains to be seen.