England aim high with Ashes squad
Our Dave Tickner gives his verdict on the 17-man squad selected by England for this winter's Ashes tour.
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With the Ashes about to embark on its quest to see if you can in fact have too much of a good thing, England have - just 29 days after the last Ashes series ended in a 3-0 victory at a dark and controversially damp Kia Oval - named their party to try and keep hold of the urn in this winter's return series.
AN Cook (Essex, Captain), MJ Prior (Sussex, Vice Captain), JM Anderson (Lancashire), JM Bairstow (Yorkshire), GS Ballance (Yorkshire), IR Bell (Warwickshire), SCJ Broad (Nottinghamshire), MA Carberry (Hampshire), ST Finn (Middlesex), MS Panesar (Sussex), KP Pietersen (Surrey), WB Rankin (Warwickshire), JE Root (Yorkshire), BA Stokes (Durham), GP Swann (Nottinghamshire), CT Tremlett (Surrey), IJL Trott (Warwickshire).
There were plenty of certainties, so let's rattle through them before getting to the interesting calls. The top five - Alastair Cook, Joe Root, Jonathan Trott, Kevin Pietersen and Ian Bell - are certain starters in Brisbane on November 21 barring injury. So too are Graeme Swann, Stuart Broad and James Anderson.
Monty Panesar, provided the England management were satisfied about his mental state, is clearly the second-best spinner available and travels as back-up to Swann's Elbow, which remains the most important body part in English cricket.
Michael Carberry is perhaps fortunate to make the squad as, for all his eye-catching one-day performances this summer, his County Championship returns in Division Two have been humdrum. A third opener is no bad thing to have in a squad, though it will surely take an injury to one of the top three for the Hampshire batsman to come into serious consideration when 17 names are whittled down to 11 in Brisbane.
The key decisions, then, regard the identity of the number-six batsman and third seamer, and England's squad suggests they are clearer about the latter than the former.
"Whoever lines up alongside Broad and Anderson in England's pace attack in Brisbane will be a giant after Steven Finn (6ft 7in), Chris Tremlett (6ft 7in) and late bolter Boyd Rankin (6ft 7in) all get the nod"
Whoever lines up alongside Broad and Anderson in England's pace attack in Brisbane will be a giant after Steven Finn (6ft 7in), Chris Tremlett (6ft 7in) and late bolter Boyd Rankin (6ft 7in) all get the nod ahead of the prolific Durham stump-botherer and perennial England nearly man Graham Onions.
Tremlett's is the most surprising selection, a romantic pick based on the last Ashes series Down Under. But that was three years ago: a positive eternity in current Ashes schedules and much has changed. Tremlett is no longer the consistent menacing Terminator who terrorised Australia's batsmen in that series, and he has had a patchy season in a woefully under-performing Surrey side.
The name may still hold fears for Australia, but he is now at the foot of the list of England's 19ft 9in of lanky hopefuls and the one most fortunate to be named in a bowling squad that appears to have over-egged a very tall basket. Finn remains an enigma, a bowler capable of true greatness but currently stuck with a run-up that resembles a drunk scrambling to the bar at the call of last orders. Long run, short run, no-one seems to know what's best and the result is an inconsistency not tolerated for long in the Andy Flower Machine.
That Finn continues to take wickets consistently while everything else about his bowling is anything but explains the continued faith showed in him by the selectors.
It is Rankin, though, in a move that would have seemed impossible even a few months ago, who now appears in pole position for Brisbane after a sensational one-day series against Australia brought the Warwickshire and former Ireland bowler five wickets and - every bit as importantly in an England team that thrives on an ability to keep control - an economy rate of 3.63 in a series when no other bowler in red kept Australia below five an over. Having also taken four wickets against Ireland in Dublin, Rankin's decision to leave his homeland to pursue his Test ambitions stands on the brink of fulfilment. He is the next cab off the Rankin.
If anything should happen to Anderson, though, England will either need Tim Bresnan to prove his fitness after an encouraging summer was cut short by yet more injury woe, or Graham Onions will be parachuted into the squad quicker than you can say "what more does he have to do?"
Bresnan will in any case be with the squad as he continues his rehab after a back injury; should he prove his fitness he will most certainly remain.
But while England have picked three similar bowlers to compete for one spot, the same is not true at number six.
Jonny Bairstow played the first four Tests of the Ashes but still misses a distressingly high percentage of straight balls for a specialist batsman. He remains in the squad, the fact he owns wicketkeeping equipment making him nominal back-up to Prior.
Bairstow made way at The Oval as England experimented with a five-man bowling attack by naming an all-rounder to bat at six and act as third seamer in a side containing two spinners. The experiment's failure owed more to the nerves of second spinner Simon Kerrigan, who endured a nightmare debut, the most distressing aspect of which was the way Alastair Cook simply ignored him after his day-one horrors and proceeded as if he had only his normal four-man attack anyway.
England retain the option to try five bowlers again, though, although the identity of the all-rounder changes. For Chris Woakes then, read Ben Stokes now after he, like Rankin, furthered his claims during the one-day series.
The most likely occupant of the number-six spot, though, may prove to be Bairstow's team-mate Gary Ballance whose weight of runs for Yorkshire and the Lions have seen him leapfrog the likes of James Taylor and Ravi Bopara to the head of England's batting cab-rank.
While all squad selections require an amount of wailing and teeth-gnashing it is hard to argue too loudly with the 17 names (plus Bresnan if fit) England have gone for.
Indeed, the fact it is easier to complain about names outside rather than inside the squad - Compton, Taylor, Onions - highlights the quality currently available to England.
The one legitimate grievance, perhaps, is that of consistency of selection. England purport to be big on this, but there is little evidence of it this time around.
England picked two debutants in the last Test match; neither makes the 17 this winter.
While Kerrigan's selection at The Oval and subsequent canning owed more to Monty's micturition than selectorial indecision, if Stokes is the answer now why was it Woakes a month ago?
Ditto James Taylor, named as back-up for injury doubt Kevin Pietersen ahead of the third Test and scorer of a century in his one innings against Australia this summer. What's changed?
Then there is Nick Compton, who started the year as England's opener and has answered every question asked of him by the selectors since being dropped and comfortably outdoing Carberry's Division Two efforts with Hampshire in the top flight for Somerset.
But a selection group that has got most things right in recent years deserves some leeway, and any grievances with the selection are minor or come down to personal preference and a judgement call. Would Taylor score more runs than Ballance? Or Onions more wickets than Tremlett? Stokes and Woakes' similarity extends beyond their rhyming names to ability and potential. Either or both of them could yet prove good enough to be cast adrift without a pedalo in a sea of unhelpful Andrew Flintoff comparisons. Stokes has perhaps appeared a whisker more dynamic a cricketer in his England displays to date, a potentially decisive factor in choosing between two players with startlingly similar first-class stats.
It's a squad that, overall, strikes a satisfactory middle ground between comfy familiarity and the excitement and novelty of the (relatively) unknown. And most importantly it looks a group more than capable of keeping the Ashes in English hands.