It’s a cold November day. England have been thumped in the first test. The home side has their number. They’ve got tailor-made pitches and by far the best attack to exploit them. But England have their plans and they’re going to stick to them come what may. So it looks like some long, tortuous nights are headed our way – sleep-addled minds echoing with the sound of tumbling wickets – half-whispered curses doing nothing to ease them, serving only to further aggravate long-suffering spouses/partners/housemates/pets/parents.
Or is that just bollocks?
England are in (almost) exactly the same position as they were a year ago. Then, a decisive change of tack led England to play two spinners in the second test in Mumbai and thrash India by ten wickets, before going on to dominate the rest of the series. They did this despite having clearly intended to employ an attack made up of Graeme Swann and three seamers, supported by the part-time spin of Samit Patel, for the whole of the series.
One feature of the, initially rather muted, press build up to this Ashes series has been the constant reminders of England’s meticulous planning, their habitual unwillingness to deviate from a pre-set course and, the fact that they have done so ever so slightly proves that they are all at sea. Or, roughly translated:
‘Oh my God – England are going to pick Michael Carberry! I can’t believe it! I didn’t think they would – so they must be going mental!’
In the last few days, we’ve heard similar statements suggesting England won’t have a clue what to do now their pre-tour plans have been even further blown out of the water by Jonathan Trott’s departure: “England’s tendency will be only to consider Plan B when the wheels are falling off and smoke is pouring out of the engine”.
In reality, throughout the Flower era, England have been far from rigid or predictable in their selection. Obviously, certain things have remained constant throughout – Cook, Pietersen and Trott (until now) have been ever-present when they have been fit, not rested or dropped for sending stupid texts to the opposition (since 2009 in the case of Trott). The same can be said for James Anderson and Graham Swann.
But, let’s face it, they’re pretty much five of the best players to have ever played for England. Dropping them would be ridiculous. This core aside, England have, whether through choice or necessity, shuffled their pack, changed their plans and experimented on numerous occasions, and generally done whatever they’ve had to do to be successful.
After their very first test in charge, Flower and Strauss dropped Ian Bell and gave Owais Shah and Ravi Bopara chances in the middle order. In following summer they gave test debuts to Graham Onions and – somewhat surprisingly at the time – Tim Bresnan. Later that summer they dropped Bopara only a few games after he’d scored three back to back centuries and, despite the bizarre clamouring of the press for the return of Ramprakash, gave Trott his debut. They plumped for Morgan after his Lions hundred when everyone said he shouldn’t have gone to the IPL and dropped Finn while he was the leading wicket taker in the last Ashes series down under, ending the series with Tremlett- and Bresnan-propelled victories at Melbourne and Sydney, neither of whom started the series.
More recently, they picked Samit Patel in India because of his bowling and proficiency against spin and gave Root his debut in Nagpur when people assumed he was just there to carry the drinks. Just a few months again they threw Stokes and Kerrigan into the last home Ashes test – just to see what they could do.
In the shorter form of the game they’ve even dropped Kevin Pietersen when he’s been out of form and left James Anderson out of the World T20 winning side in the Caribbean.
Some of these decisions have been a success, others quite clearly haven’t. There are some that we’ll only be able judge with time. What is certain is that England under Flower are not afraid of making big decisions when they need to. And they certainly need to now.
England plan meticulously. That means they will have planned for a number of eventualities on this tour. I don’t believe suddenly realised Carberry could open the batting and Root could bat at six after the first tour game. Even I realised that was an option, and I’m basically an idiot. Anyone looking at the touring party six weeks ago would have been able to foresee situations where England might play a couple of tall fast bowlers if they wanted to, or bat Stokes at 6 to get Panesar in the side – or just strengthen the bowling.
That said, I’m not sure anyone, even in the England management, would have foreseen Trott going home after the first test. It’s clearly a huge loss, but England have a number of perfectly adequate options could use to fill the number three slot – including one that has twenty test centuries, and another that scored 170-odd opening the batting against the same team a few tests ago. I’m not entirely sure who they should pick, but I’m glad people have stopped suggesting Mark Ramprakash.