51allout aren’t easily surprised, but the recently announced squad to tour South Africa packed more surprises than a Cilla Black DVD boxset. Each and every one of us dropped our gin bottles as the news was announced. Even Editor Steve, who normally clutches anything containing alcohol like a young boy on his first night at Prep School clutches his teddy.
Now that a week or so has passed, we can finally look past the headlines and give a considered view on whether the selectors have made the right call or not. Or in other words, having started this article nine days ago and forgotten about it whilst getting distracted by a) Victoria Coren-Mitchell on Only Connect and b) Victoria Coren-Mitchell on Have I Got News For You, we finally remembered to log back on and see what we were working on. Without further ado, let’s see whether we agree with the selectors or not.
Let’s start at the top; Alex Hales was always going to be selected as the next temporary opener, but a recall for Nick Compton came from nowhere. In September’s England Ladder we even put him below Kevin Pietersen. But not only does his appearance in squad photos increase the likely sales of the the 2016 official ECB calendar, it also brings some experience and maturity to the choice of batsmen. With Hales not expected to exactly become Herbert Sutcliffe, and Ian Bell no longer an option (more on that later), Compo does look a reassuring option at either opener or three should other experiments fail.
One such potential failure is the recall of Gary Ballance. His international record meant he was always likely to make a return at some point, but it does seem a little premature; we imagine the South African quicks will enjoy bowling at him if his feet only move backwards. Mind you, they would also relish bowling at Lord Bell in his recent form. As sad as it is to see a man with Bell’s pedigree dropped – presumably forever – it did feel that, during the series against Pakistan, time was running out. Nevertheless, although he’s no longer in the best five batsmen in the country, he is arguably still in the top seven – yet the sight of him in a tabard carrying the drinks would have made grown men cry salt tears. Yep, England can keep Ballance.
Another talking point is the choice of second-spinner. Editor Steve, in a rare moment of lucidity, observed that Adil Rashid would benefit from playing in the Big Bash rather than sitting on the South African sidelines, especially with another World T20 taking place next year. But the question that needs to be asked is why take a second-spinner anyway, unless there is a credible option? Samit Patel is not the second best spinner in the country and is not good enough to play for England in South Africa, even if it is as back-up for Moeen Ali as a quasi-all-rounder. Our pick would have been Scott Borthwick. Admittedly he bowled fewer overs than Patel last season, with a worse record, but he would also give England another option as a front-line batsman.
We learned in advance of the squad being announced that both Steven Finn and Mark Wood were not likely to tour due to injury. This surely meant it was Plunkett Time, bearing in mind he’d gone to the UAE. But instead England have opted to bring back Chris Woakes and Chris Jordan, neither of whom seem like bowlers who will strike fear into the South African lineup. Mark Footitt seems a good, if untested, option to fill the big boots left behind by Simon Brown, Alan Mullally, Mark Ilott and Ryan Sidearse. Although we bet he’d not have been picked were he still employed by Derbyshire.
The result will be a long batting line-up (Woakes and/or Jordan) and better slip cordon (Jordan only), but an attack still heavily reliant on James Anderson and Stuart Broad, whereas a place for Plunkett would have shown England’s intent on actually winning some matches.