It has become tradition for 51allout to preview each Test match with a look at both sides before settling on a prediction to round things off, while blitzing our way through a bottle of gin in the process. That has become a bit stale. This time, with one team providing approximately zero talking points and the result already being beyond doubt to such an extent that even we won’t be able to jinx it, we’re taking a slightly different approach. Although the gin thing will probably still be true. England’s reaction to a defeat primarily down to their batsmen falling to pieces for no apparent reason will be to change their bowling attack, for which there are various options they could go with. Here, we take a look at the two key positions: those two spots in the attack not filled by either Jimmy Anderson or Graeme Swann.
Almost from the opening over of the first match, the bleary-eyed television folk, operating out of a secret bunker in Central London to protect themselves from roaming BCCI strike teams, were bemoaning England’s decision to leave Monty Panesar out of the side in Ahmedabad. They decided that Monty, who averages 53 against India and 55 in India, would have been the key component in an English surge to victory and to omit him was a selection mistake of Pattinson-esque proportions. That’s Darren, not James, who, despite being an enormous gibbon, is actually quite good.
There is a reasonable point in all that; England probably do need a second spinner – if only to help oil Graeme Swann’s elbow joint during particularly long stints in the field – as the attack looks a little samey in its current state. The problem is that Monty should not be, and indeed is not, the solution. England have not won a Test match with Panesar in the side since August 2008, he brings nothing to the table other than his bowling (in fact, he weakens the side considerably in other areas) and with the ball itself his record doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. He performed well in two Tests in Dubai and Abu Dhabi on pitches which could not have been more suited to his bowling if he had laid them himself, Nathan Lyon style, but was spectacularly rubbish in Galle and India has not been a happy hunting ground for him in the past.
It has been four years since Swann displaced Panesar in the England side, and still there is no sign of anyone else being given the chance to challenge them as the two favoured spinners. There have been plenty of chances, particularly in the one day arena, to try out some of the younger generation and prepare them for the highest level. None of these chances have been taken. Instead, England have consistently gone back to James Tredwell, a player about whom they know everything and who is never going to come close to playing another Test, and have badly neglected to think ahead. By now they should have been in a position to take a younger man on tour, someone who would have benefitted hugely from the experience of India as well as the potential chance to play a supporting role to Swann. There would have been less pressure, due to Swann’s presence, while it could have been a key part in his development towards becoming the main spinner in a couple of years. The fact this hasn’t happened, nor has ever been close to happening, is another to add to the string of failings by the management team over the past 18 months.
England’s steadfast refusal to try anything new until it is absolutely forced upon them has been a part of their undoing during a dreadful year and the fact they (almost certainly) will once again resort to Monty in Mumbai is a damning indictment of the coaching staff. He wasn’t good enough four years ago, and he wasn’t good enough in Colombo six months ago. Why is he good enough now?
While Tim Bresnan will be dropped, Stuart Broad may well have managed to wrangle himself a stay of execution by re-crippling Steven Finn in the nick of time. His position, though, is the other spot in the team over which question marks the size of a bits and pieces number six batsman remain. With Finn out, the only contenders for Broad’s place are Graham Onions and late call-up Stuart Meaker.
Either would represent a gamble, meaning England wouldn’t do it even if they were strapped to a table while some weird bloke threatened to burn their unmentionables to a crisp with a laser unless they picked one, but we can but dream. Broad has played six Tests in India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh; he has taken 11 wickets at 64 with a strike rate of 115. His batting has declined to such an extent it is no longer a consideration and (we really can’t emphasise this enough) his general petulance has become so irritating it’s making us far too angry for our own good.
So in an ideal world, where England sides are picked on merit rather than who is most in with the FIFA crowd, who takes his place? Onions would be the ‘next cab off the rank’ selection, who has done his time carrying the drinks and was in the side at Edgbaston when Broad and Jimmy Anderson were rested. The problem is that he has a distinct feel of cannon-fodder about him on wickets in India, while also essentially being an Anderson-lite. Meaker would be a massive punt, but he has something the rest of the attack doesn’t: pace. Zaheer Khan and Umesh Yadav showed in Ahmedabad how you either need cunning and guile or raw speed as a seam bowler to trouble batsmen on these pitches. England’s attack is one-paced and – Anderson aside – would struggle to spell guile, never mind display it.
Nasser Hussain made the point during the first Test that visiting teams need to think like an Indian side and remember they’re playing in very different conditions. A basic point, perhaps, but one that England have thus far spectacularly failed to take heed of. They have to pick Panesar because they gave themselves no other option, but they do have an opportunity to give Alastair Cook a more varied attack. Choose Meaker, back his pace and his unpredictability and you never know.