When England announced their supposedly new-look twelve-man squad for the first South Africa test at Lords starting last Thursday, I think it’s fair to say there were some eyebrows raised. However, when England wrapped up a comfortable 211-run victory by Sunday afternoon, were they justified by their somewhat underwhelming selection policy that had preceded the test match, or do those questions still remain?
For those England fans who were looking forward to a new era under Joe Root’s captaincy with excitement, based on Root’s ability to inspire all and sundry with the positive approach he has taken to his batting in his career so far, many were left unhappy with his first choice of starting XI. I don’t think anyone expected Liam Dawson to be included in the 12 let alone start, and such was the uncertainty over that pick, that incredibly, many people actually expected England to start with five seamers for the first time at Lords since 1993.
For England to go back, for the third time no less, to Root’s old flatmate from Leeds Gary Ballance, to many looked like plain favouritism. Root may never again be in such a strong position as to hold sway over his fellow selectors with a couple of his own personal choices, and it certainly felt like in Ballance, Dawson, and to a lesser extent the continuation of Jonny Bairstow at number 5, Root has already put his stamp on selection during this new era. For what it’s worth, I was, and still am, definitively against the inclusion of both Gary Ballance and Liam Dawson.
Ballance still looks like a walking wicket at number 3 at test level. When he plays county cricket, he is able to stand back very deep into his crease, and still then his trigger movements are put into action to come forward in time to be on the front foot when the ball reaches him. The problem is he is not facing the quality (or perhaps more importantly, the pace) of bowling that he is up against when he plays the Proteas, and looking further down the line, Australia – in Australia. His technique dictates that he so likely to be trapped on the crease coming forward, as he was in the first innings at Lords, that all top fast bowlers seem able to set him up for doing so. It is fair to say that Ballance’s current First Class record is untouchable. 815 runs from 11 innings averaging 101.88 is surely grounds for selection no matter the scenario. But having looked woefully out of place on the subcontinent before Christmas, and twice been dropped from the setup so far in his career, there are other candidates that can feel hard done by. The fact that Tom Westley batted at number 3 (whilst Ballance himself came in at 4) for the England Lions against South Africa in their warm up match at Worcester and scored a hundred means that he was surely unlucky to miss out. Dawid Malan recently stepped up to international cricket and looked the part in England’s third T20 win over South Africa in Cardiff. Opener Sam Robson has been back to top form for Middlesex in the County Championship, as has Nick Browne at table-topping Essex. Joe Clarke is another highly rated youngster with the bat, and much has been made of Liam Livingstone at Lancashire. Bearing all of this in mind, going back for the third time to Gary Ballance shows that Root has a huge amount of faith in his Yorkshire teammate; if he doesn’t get a score at Trent Bridge there will be huge pressure on him to try someone new.
Liam Dawson’s inclusion equally left a big question mark over his head as to whether he is likely to be able to step up to test level, and at Lords he also did little to alleviate such fears. Two wickets in either innings (only one of which was a top six batsman) on one of the most turning Lords wickets ever seen, plus a pair of two-ball ducks will mean he has a lot to do to become a long-term fixture in the test side. Coach Trevor Bayliss has been keen to point out that they are considering Moeen Ali as a “batsman who bowls a bit”, although after Moeen’s 10-for at Lords and Chris Woakes’ injury lay-off likely to come to an end soon, can they really justify keeping Dawson in, especially if he’s not scoring runs at number 8?
What does feel like a good move is Moeen Ali moving, and so he will hope settling, at number 7 in the order and being part of a 6-man bowling attack. His batting average at number 7 is now 78.77 from 12 innings, despite him saying earlier in the summer that he finds it difficult there. But a record like that coupled to the fact that when being made part of a 6-man bowling attack the pressure of his off-spin is surely relieved somewhat, is surely a big plus for England. It should also leave him free to try and just take wickets with his bowling – surely his strong point, rather than holding up an end.
England are extraordinarily lucky to have two world class all-rounders; they need to find the solution to their selection dilemmas this summer to make it work entirely in their favour. Playing six front-line bowlers may seem like an unnecessary overindulgence in most conditions around the world, however if it means the likes of Stokes and Ali can be used sparingly, more as wicket takers who’s main job is to score runs, then England could potentially put together a seriously good side for some time.
Finding a spinner to settle on who can control an innings when necessary is their next priority, and unless Gary Ballance starts to score runs soon, so is finding a long-term number 3.