Alex Massie

A Very English Cricketing Fiasco

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Selkirk vs Langholm at Philiphaugh, 8/9/08

Actually, it wasn't a completely disastrous cricketing weekend. Selkirk did successfully chase 206 to defeat Langholm in the Border League. Not called upon to bowl or bat, your correspondent's contribution was limited to taking a simple (but vital!) catch. Elsewhere, of course, doom and gloom and despair reign supreme.

England's batting this morning as Broad and Swann gave it some humpty actually irritated me. Too late, far too late. But a reminder that there was nothing to excuse the abject feebleness of this English performance. This has been a strange series contested by two pretty average sides. The quality of the cricket scarcely compares to the thrills of 2005. Not that this matters too much since, despite the Headingley humiliation, the teams are sufficiently evenly--matched to provide an absorbing contest.

And despite this dismal performance in Leeds, if you'd said at the start of the summer that we'd head back to London with the series tied 1-1 most England fans would have been happy enough with that. Very happy, even.

Nonetheless, changes must be made. Flintoff will play even if not fully fit and at least there'll be no need to worry about his long-term fitness. Ravi Bopara in full flight is, like Ian Bell, a splendid sight. But, alas, neither should play at the Oval. The luck Bopara enjoyed in the West Indies (not merely being dropped multiple times but also batting against perhaps the worst West Indian attack in living memory) has deserted him entirely. It would be close to a mercy to send him back to Essex with the message to work on his technique and prepare for the winter.

I have spent years defending Ian Bell but all good things must come to an end and, sadly, Mr Bell's time is up. There was a terrible, even abject, weakness about his batting in Leeds and it is hard to avoid the impression that Australia would very much prefer him in the side than out of it. Bell and Bopara each have higher ceilings than, say, Cook and Collingwood but, right now, it's tricky, indeed impossible, to justify their continued selection.

So who should play? It's something of an indictment of county cricket that there aren't too many candidates making much of a case for inclusion. Jonathan Trott is doubtless the next in line, largely, one assumes, because he's a South African. Certainly, a first-class record of a century every 12 innings (just 18 tons in 217 efforts) does little to press a case for his inclusion. Nor, frankly, does this or his career average of just 41 suggest he's an obvious test match number three.

Rate of success is a useful measurement. A comparison between the English and Australian batting line-ups confirms what we knew before the series started and have seen since: the Australians are better batsmen. Andrew Strauss, for instance, has scored a century every 9.1 innings in his first class career. Ricky Ponting averages a ton every 5.5 innings - a remarkable statistic that puts him in the tier of greatness below Bradman and, in the second deck, George Headley. Hammond, for the sake of comparison, averaged a century every six innings (though of course he played on uncovered pitches).

Anyway, the figures for the other batsmen in this series are: Pietersen 6.1, Strauss 9.1, Cook 9.1, Bell 10.2, Bopara 10.1, Collingwood 13.2 vs Clarke 7.2, Katich 7.5, Hussey 8.0, North 9.1

Now obviously this is a crude, un-nuanced measurement, but it's also, I think, a useful one. Is Trott - scorer of a century once every six matches, remember - really likely to improve England's batting? It seems unlikely. So who might? Robert Key has his supporters and, with a century every 8.7 innings he at least scores more consistently, at county level anyway, than Bell, Bopara or Collingwood. Could he do any worse than Bopara in the form Puppy is in? Hardly.

Which then leaves us with the simple task of accomodating the best English batsman in the country. Picking Mark Ramprakash  will require some humility from the selectors since it will be admissions of a) their desperation and b) that they've got selection consistently wrong for years. Still, is Ramprakash one of the best five batsmen in England? Of course he is. Therefore you should pick him. After all, he averages a century every 6.5 innings.

True, there are his past failures. But that was then, not now. True too, there was a brief stumble last season as he strove to knock-off his hundredth hundred. But remember too that Ramps averages 42 aganst Australia and, in his last Ashes test way back in 2001, scored a century against Warne and McGrath. At the Oval.

Yes, he's 39. But so what? He's batting as well as ever, bludgeoning another 1200 runs so far this season at a useful average of 100. There's precedent for this sort of recall too. The 42-year old Colin Cowdrey may not have dominated the Australians in 1975-75 but he played Lillee and Thomson as well as anyone else, while in 1956 his fellow selectors asked Cyril Washbrook to leave the room for a moment and, when he returned, asked the 41-year old Lancastrian if he'd mind playing against the Australians one last time. Coming in to bat with England 17 for 3 Washbrook made 98 and helped set up an England victory at Headingley.

Will they do it, however? I suspect not, but wouldn't it be grand if they did? England need to attack and that means they need their best batsman. That in turn means they need Bloodaxe.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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