By Oliver Brett
Astute Indian fans needing a boost to their morale would surely take some comfort in the selection of the England squad for the five-match One-Day series which starts at the Riverside ground on Saturday.
For all their skill when it comes to picking Test cricketers, the England selectors have made some hare-brained decisions in their ODI choices over the past few years. Predictably, they appear to have done so again.
Kevin Pietersen had endured a poor couple of years in 2009 and 2010, but showed himself to be back to his best in the recent Test series, in which he was the leading run-scorer with 533 at an average of 106.60.
He does not need to be rested. When he’s hot he’s hot. He is a very good example of a cricketer who needs to be kept occupied, rather than left to stew on the sidelines. And yet the national selector Geoff Miller has singled him out for a temporary axing “in line with our policy of sensibly managing player workloads”. It doesn’t make sense; none of the fast bowlers, who are inevitably more prone to injury, have been given a break.
One suspects it’s really a smokescreen, and that Pietersen has been dropped on the grounds of having managed just two half-centuries in ODIs since November 2008.
But there were extenuating circumstances for his poor form in 2009 and 2010 – which, incidentally, also affected him in Test cricket – and as he is one of the few genuinely “explosive” players in the England line-up the selectors’ decision looks bizarre.
Would Amit Mishra and Munaf Patel prefer to be bowling to Durham rookie Ben Stokes, who made just three on ODI debut against Ireland, or Pietersen, one of the most celebrated destroyers of bowling attacks for the last six years? It’s such a silly question it does not even bear a considered answer.
There are only three decent hitters in the side. One of them is the unorthodox Craig Kieswetter, who has his limitations. There is Stokes himself, a callow 20-year-old who nevertheless has the capability to play aggressively, and the regularly impressive Eoin Morgan.
Beyond them, England’s batting looks worryingly suspect.
Ian Bell looks set to be given the number four slot. But this could be his last chance to translate his imperious Test form into something meaningful in ODIs. Bell finds it difficult to up his scoring rate when the need comes for an acceleration, something he shares with Jonathan Trott.
India, thus, should not worry unduly if Bell and Trott come together in a partnership, while the captain Alastair Cook is still settling into his role both as opening batsman and captain – he has played just 13 One-Day Internationals.
Add the perennial fringe player Ravi Bopara – who will, as usual, be under pressure to perform – and there are big question marks over this England batting line-up, question-marks which never seem to apply to the Test team.
Since reaching the 1992 World Cup final, England have been pretty hopeless at One-Day cricket, picking up the odd series here and there but failing pretty miserably in the big tournaments.
Out of the five World Cups from 1996 to 2011 they have not even reached a semifinal, and while they played well for much of the 2004 ICC Champions Trophy final on home soil at The Oval their failure to seal the deal against a weak-looking West Indies led to some painful soul-searching which set back progress for months if not years.
For England to mount a serious challenge in the 2015 World Cup, they are going to have to think about a nucleus of 15 players now, including younger, untried players, who they can envisage winning the tournament. And, to get to the real crux of the matter, they may have to take the tough decision to axe Bell and Trott sooner rather than later.
The selectors, and particularly coach Andy Flower, are understandably fond of Bell and Trott. While they are exceptionally strong Test batsmen they are not adept at One-Day cricket, however. It is completely wrong for those two players to keep the clutch of really promising young county batsmen, fellows like Jos Buttler, Alex Hales and James Taylor, out of ODI reckoning for very much longer.
Unfortunately, England’s management, to the huge frustration of the fans, find it very hard to break up the Test squad to accommodate One-Day players, even though the policy backfired spectacularly early this year.
When they emerged from their strenuous tour of Australia drained by injuries and plain exhaustion, there were virtually no experienced ODI specialists to pick up the slack, and the result was the usual unconvincing World Cup display.
By contrast India and Australia, who between them have won the last four World Cups, do not suffer from the same affliction, seamlessly tweaking their sides between Test and One-Day series and developing their resources all the time.
Of the Indian team who beat Pakistan in Mumbai, Virat Kohli had not played a single Test while Suresh Raina and Munaf Patel had very limited experience of five-day cricket. All three, however, had ample ODI experience and rose to the challenge accordingly.
Take some of the fine Australia sides of recent times. Justin Langer played 105 Tests and formed a brilliant opening partnership with Matthew Hayden up until 2007 but featured in just eight ODIs, the last of them in 1997. The Australian selectors correctly viewed his steady, attritional style as a fine foil for Matthew Hayden in Tests, but not for One-Dayers.
And their World Cup winning side of 2003 had places for edgy, unpredictable batsmen like Andrew Symonds and Darren Lehmann in it, but none for Steve Waugh, whose glittering Test career would continue until the following January.
England, however, do not seem to learn from history. And until the One-Day unit is viewed as a separate entity, rather than an extension of the Test squad, they may continue to suffer unnecessarily in World Cups.
Oliver Brett has worked with the BBC.
Updated Date: Aug 29, 2011 11:57:00 IST