Nick Compton and James Taylor are also in contention
Two-nil down after two matches and the inquests have started in Australia. Is it the fault of the Big Bash or the pitches and the scheduling of Sheffield Shield cricket? Is it all to do with the enduring popularity of Aussie rules football, the ousting of Julia Gillard as Prime Minister or even that of Mickey Arthur as Australia’s coach? It is even possible to hear envious Antipodean references to the structure of English domestic cricket, so frequently ridiculed by previous visitors from Australia.
Meanwhile, England sit pretty, their only conceivable grievance being that the focus has been so fiercely directed on the disintegration of the Australia team at Lord’s rather than the quality of England’s performance.
Well, James Anderson and Graeme Swann have been reliably excellent; Ian Bell has become a rock in the middle order and now there is plenty of room at the top for young Joe Root.
While Australia may be tempted to throw all their cards in the air and see how they land before selecting their Old Trafford Test side, England may just have one interesting decision to make. Kevin Pietersen has a calf strain and may not be fit for the third Test. In which case who is going to replace him?
This can be an important decision since it sets a pecking order and one of the virtues of this selection panel is that they crave consistency wherever possible. So, even if Pietersen’s possible replacement were to play just a solitary match in this series, he could start to dream of a winter tour to Australia.
No obvious solution
There is not an obvious solution. There are the one-day stalwarts, who would love to resuscitate their Test careers. Ravi Bopara had an excellent Champions Trophy; Eoin Morgan flickered. But both have been hampered by injury recently and may not be Test-match fit even if they are deemed suitable. Thus neither is likely to get the call. The same applies to Samit Patel, who has been having a productive season for Nottinghamshire, but who has faded from the selectors’ thoughts.
It is more likely that they turn to one of three batsmen who are more obviously Test match types. Just in case there is too much self-congratulation, given the state of the Ashes series, about the seamless pathway that has been created in this country from the cradle to the Test arena, it should be noted that two of the candidates come via Southern Africa and Harrow school, while the other had the benefit of playing much of his early cricket on the manicured pastures of Shrewsbury school.
Nick Compton of Somerset and Gary Ballance of Yorkshire, who is the nephew of Dave Houghton, one of Zimbabwe’s finest ever batsmen, both ended their education at Harrow after being nurtured in Durban and Harare respectively.
Compton has two Test centuries to his name but for him the wrong person is injured. He is the obvious replacement if any of England’s top three is indisposed. Kevin Pietersen bats at four. Now that Joe Root has scored 180 as an opener England will not move him back down the order. Cook and Root are now earmarked as the monosyllabic opening pair for the rest of the decade.
James Taylor has played two Tests and it would be something of an irony if he replaced an injured Pietersen. Amid all of last summer’s smoke-and-mirror rumblings after the Headingley Test against South Africa, where Taylor made his debut, was the suggestion that Pietersen was none too impressed by his latest companion in the middle order. More relevantly the selectors soon discarded Taylor after one more outing at Lord’s.
It seems that they had their reservations as well. It was reckoned that at Test level, where the accuracy and pace of bowlers are generally enhanced, Taylor could be too easily becalmed by the appropriate line, just outside off stump. He has scored runs for Nottinghamshire this summer at an average of 53. The son of a jockey, he will be looking over his shoulder during the next few days if it emerges that Pietersen’s calf remains troublesome.
Coming up on the rails is Ballance, 23, a prolific left-hander and an adopted Yorkshireman, whose inclusion would mean that there is a fourth Tyke in the side, which will lead to interminable reminders that “a strong Yorkshire means a strong England”.
However, there may be a grain of truth there.
Ballance, who played under Taylor in the unsuccessful Lions tour of Australia last winter, averages 52 in his relatively brief first-class career and 62 this summer. The least experienced of the candidates may be the likeliest. Two-nil up, England may feel inclined to experiment a little.
As for the Australians … oh dear … the space has run out. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2013