Following the thrill of regaining the Ashes urn, England’s cricketers have a very different assignment in October when they travel to the Middle East to take on Pakistan in a three-match series.
This Green Caps side is steadily improving and has a formidable record in Dubai; winning against Australia and drawing with New Zealand at their newly-adopted home. It is a test that England will not be taking lightly, even though they may be series favourites.
Batsmen tend to dominate out there in what are agreeable circumstances – which is perhaps good news for Alistair Cook’s men, although the skills of Jimmy Anderson, Stuart Broad et al will be sorely tested after a summer of helpful bowling conditions. And so the need for a good spin option is painfully apparent.
So how will the selectors manage this and the other outstanding selection headaches?
Cook and His Sous Chef
Alistair Cook’s fortunes as both a batsman and a captain have greatly improved this summer, with his side’s new-found attacking brand of the game winning plaudits and, more importantly, matches.
He is still crying out for a consistent opening partner though; despite playing his usual unflappable straight bat when questioned on the matter. The truth is that Adam Lyth – with a test average of 21 from 11 innings – has one final chance to salvage his England career in the final Ashes test at The Oval. The lack of technique in evidence when playing outside of his off stump is a fatal flaw at the highest level of the game, and suggests the Yorkshireman might be running out of time.
And so England’s Cook will need his own Sous Chef in the cauldron of the Middle East. Unfortunately, there aren’t many candidates in the county game currently cooking up a storm. Durham’s Mark Stoneman looks handy, and with more than 800 County Championship runs to his name this season – scored largely at a ground which is notoriously difficult to bat on – he could be a contender. A first-class career batting average of 31 does little to marinade the imagination however.
It seems inevitable that Alex Hales will one day play test cricket for England, and the Nottinghamshire man certainly possesses no shortage of talent. A County Championship average of 43 is eye-catching, and it has been suggested that Hales has tempered some of his more natural attacking instincts in order to catch the eye of the England selectors. But the bulk of his runs have come from the number three slot, and this could count against him in the debate of the next England opener.
And so it may be that Moeen Ali, with his experience as a top order batsman in the county game, gets the nod.
Spin’s the Thing
As you might expect in the Middle East, spin bowling is an essential weapon in the captain’s armoury. Statistically, there is little to separate the effectiveness of spinners and seamers in Dubai – as a quick glance at the stats from Pakistan’s series’ against the Aussies and the Kiwi’s last time out attests. But the searing heat makes it incredibly hard for seamers to a) bowl lengthy spells and b) bowl at their top pace consistently. A spinner is essential for doing much of the donkey work.
Any discussion about Moeen Ali always comes with the caveat that his bowling isn’t quite up to scratch, or inconsistent if you’re feeling kind. And so the England selectors must try to track down a potential alternative.
The problem, simply, is finding one. It is hard for tweakers in the county game to take wickets due to the often capricious conditions for seamers in the good old English summer, and a quick look at the stats reflects this. The only spinner in the top 20 wicket takers in the County Championship this season is a Kiwi, Jeetan Patel, and he’s a full 32 victims behind the leading scalper; (seamer) Chris Rushworth. The leading English candidates, Adil Rashid and Danny Briggs, have rarely made inroads for their respective counties, whilst Scott Borthwick continues to look Ali-esque in his proficiency with the bat rather than the ball.
And so perhaps Moeen will keep the job as frontline spinner by default; unless something miraculous happens in the next few weeks.
For Ian the Bell Tolls
A rejuvenation or a reprieve? That’s what the England selectors will be asking themselves when discussing Ian Bell’s promotion up to number three in the batting order.
The signs at Edgbaston in the third Ashes test were promising – he practically led his side to victory, but is it once again that same old story with the Warwickshire man: when the pressure for his place is on, he does just enough to retain his slot.
At the age of 33, Bell realistically only has one or two more seasons at the top level left in him, and so it will depend when the selectors want to take a look at potential successors – Hales, James Taylor et al – as to how long his England career continues.
Gary Ballance is an undoubted talent; his sheer weight of runs in the county game is proof of that, but a bizarre technical fault in his game – batting deep in his crease and seemingly unable to move his feet – is exposed as almost park cricket-esque at the highest level.
If he can remedy this, he may still have a future with the Three Lions. If he can’t, he might be consigned to test cricket’s scrapheap like so many before him. If he can notch a few runs between now and October, he might be given the opportunity to prove himself in Dubai.
Jos Buttler’s Ashes batting average of 13 is worryingly low for a player of his talent, and luckily for him the form of the players around him in the England middle order has allowed the normally bold strokemaker’s problems to go slightly under the radar.
He played well against the Kiwis earlier in the summer however, and at 25 years old is clearly an important cog in the England side both right now and in the coming years. But the fact that Jonny Bairstow can keep wicket effectively will surely cause him a few sleepless nights out in the sultry heat of the Middle East.