Friday, 8 July 2016

Springing the surprises

Friday, 8 July 2016
One sure way to create a talking point is to announce a new test squad, or at least it seems to be one subject I spend a lot of time talking about on here. The international summer as ever moves along at a rapid rate, with there barely time to pause for breath before the tricky challenge of a test series against Pakistan begins next week. And with Compton dropped, Anderson injured, and Stokes still absent through his injury, the selectors had some interesting decisions to make.

And interesting decisions they were. I have long been something of a cheerleader for Gary Ballance - when he was breaking into the England team, when he was in it, and when he was out of it. But am I surprised he's been recalled? Yes, definitely. And would I have recalled him at this point? It's unlikely. Whilst I firmly believe he still has a test future ahead of him, like most I wasn't expecting this to be the time he would return. There's still the feeling that he hasn't done enough to remedy the issues with his technique - that big movement back in his crease that got him into trouble against the full, swinging ball. An average of 33.64 in the Championship this season has hardly set the world alight either, especially compared to other rivals for England places. But timing is everything, and this week Ballance made a century against a strong Middlesex attack; whilst Scott Borthwick's last three first class innings have been single figure scores.

It will be a challenge for his technique against a Pakistan bowling attack well able to expose any flaws, particularly with the recent return of Mohammad Amir. But Ballance does seem to have the mental character and the appetite for the battle in test cricket, and maybe a move from three to the middle order will serve him well. Certainly it was a surprise when he took the number three spot in the first place, never having been his position for Yorkshire and really having a technique more suited to batting at four or five. Root will be the man moving up to number three, with Bayliss keen on having the best player in the position. Root is adaptable, and certainly has the ability to rise to the challenge - but there's also the argument that if he's doing so well at four, why should you change it? The make up of England's middle order remains uncertain.

An option that was considered, and was looking likely with remarks made by Bayliss in the ODI series, was for Jos Buttler to return to the test team as a specialist batsman. It would have been quite the attacking move, and one definitely in keeping with the philosophy England are trying to employ in all formats. At the end of the day though, the safer option was taken. Buttler may be able to transform himself into a test player in the future, but I'd feel he needs more time batting with the red ball to do so, and with IPL and England commitments hasn't yet played a first class game this season.

The new face in the squad belongs to a bowler, Toby Roland-Jones. Jake Ball may be the front runner to fill James Anderson's spot, but Roland-Jones will provide strong competition and it will be a close contest for the test place. The call up might have been slightly unexpected, not having featured in an England squad before and with little hype before his inclusion. But he has been consistent in county cricket for a number of years, has a first class average of 25.17, and was involved in the Lions setup during the winter - certainly enough to put him on anyone's radar. He's shown his form this week as well, playing a key part with bat and ball as Middlesex defeated Yorkshire by an innings. His selection also gives me the chance to tell anyone who will listen that he belted a brilliant century from number 10 - also against Yorkshire - when I saw him play last year.

Pakistan of course beat England in the winter tests, and England will be wanting to set the record straight in home conditions - though Mohammad Amir and Wahab Riaz will provide a big test for a batting line up still not yet fully firing. Series against Pakistan can often be an interesting and tense affair, and the potential is there for a close contest between the two sides.

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