David de Winter – Sports Writer
On the same day the football World Cup kicks-off a few thousand miles away in Brazil, England’s cricket team will embark on their first test series, against Sri Lanka, since the 5-0 debacle in Australia. There is a real sense of a new era with this squad. Graeme Swann, Kevin Pietersen and Jonathan Trott, big players for almost a decade, are no longer involved in the set-up for various reasons and Peter Moores has selected three uncapped players in Sam Robson, Moeen Ali and Chris Jordan to fill their sizeable shoes. Yorkshire’s Liam Plunkett has been recalled after seven years in the wilderness as has Warwickshire seamer Chris Woakes who only has one cap to his name. The team may look inexperienced on paper but they have numerous seasons of county cricket under their belts so they should hit the ground running.
I cannot argue with the selections of Robson, Ali and Jordan. Robson excelled himself last summer and also in the winter, scoring heavily for the England performance squad and England Lions. He is viewed as a long-term opening partner for Alastair Cook and although Michael Carberry was slightly unlucky to miss out, he didn’t set the world alight when the opportunity came his way. The left-hand, right-hand combination with Cook could also have been a factor in Robson’s inclusion. Moeen Ali is a classy left-hander who scored a wonderful hundred this week against Surrey. He proved he has the technique and temperament to play international cricket, impressing the selectors in March and April on the tour to the West Indies and also at the World T20 in Bangladesh. His off-spin will also certainly come in handy. Jordan is probably the most hyped of the three. A promising World T20 gave way to an explosive start to the season where he biffed 38 runs from 13 balls in the ODI against Sri Lanka at The Oval, and he took 12 wickets over the whole series. Jordan has a whiff of the Andrew Flintoff about him. He is capable of the spectacular with ball, bat and in the field.
I am encouraged by the selection of Gary Balance. The Zimbabwe-born left-hander has a career average of over 50 in first-class cricket and he thoroughly deserves his chance, possibly at number three. I am less enthused by Joe Root’s inclusion. Since his debut in 2012, Root has been ‘anointed’ as a star of the future without really having the game to back it up. In his 15 tests and 29 innings as a Test batsman he has only played one innings of real significance, the 180 against Australia at Lords last summer. There is common consent that his technique is suspect, especially against swing bowling in the ‘corridor of uncertainty’ and he tends to play back when he should be forward. He escaped criticism from the Australia tour mostly because of the Pietersen saga, but has to start producing regularly because he is now one of the more experienced players in the squad.
The inclusion of both Liam Plunkett and Chris Woakes raised both eyebrows. Plunkett first came into the England team as a 20 year-old tearaway in 2005 and has an unremarkable record with the ball in Test cricket, averaging a shade under 40. He has had a good start to 2014 with 24 wickets for Yorkshire; he swings the ball at good speed and is a lustly lower-order batsman. I just feel that he has already had an opportunity to show what he can do in England shirt and didn’t deliver. I see no reason why it should be any different this time around. I am willing to be proved wrong, and I hope I am, but I don’t think he quite has what it takes to succeed in the international arena. Similarly, Woakes has been on the fringes of the England squad for four seasons yet he is still to grasp his opportunity. His first-class statistics are, well, first-class. A bowling average of 25 and 38 with the bat are numbers that should have the selectors drooling. However, Woakes has never impressed when given the opportunity international cricket. At 25, he still has time on his side but I get the impression he has to start performing soon in an England shirt otherwise the selectors will start to look elsewhere.
Speaking of which, where is Steven Finn’s call-up? He has been treated atrociously by the England management after being sent home from Australia to ‘work on his action’. Rubbish. His action is absolutely tickety-boo. Yes, he might go for a few runs but he has a very handy knack of taking wickets – quite useful in cricket. At 6ft 7 he can trouble the best batsmen in the world and having watched the one-day series, to quote Corporal Jones from Dad’s Army, the Sri Lankans ‘don’t like it up ‘em’. The second highest wicket-taker in the first division this season with 30, Finn is hardly struggling. He has a bit of X-Factor about him for which this docile and conservative England team is crying out. The prospect of him and Jordan bowling together alongside James Anderson and Stuart Broad has got me salivating. He may be off the selectors’ radar at the moment but at only 25, he has time on his side, and I have no doubt he will be back in the England fray before the end of the summer.
The final order of business is Matt Prior’s selection. The Sussex keeper has had a pretty disastrous two years behind the stumps for England since his heroics in New Zealand in early 2013. He was rightly dropped for the final two Tests down-under in the winter but since then, no-one has done enough to demand selection ahead of him. Jonny Bairstow, Craig Kieswetter and Jos Buttler have all been mooted as alternatives but none of them have convinced behind the timbers. Buttler scored a magnificent century in the agonising ODI defeat against Sri Lanka at Lords and I think long-term he will be Prior’s replacement. For now though, Prior still has a lot to offer this England side, and it is a wise move to re-instate him, not least for his experience in a squad with three debutants.
For what it’s worth, this series is too close to call. In Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene, Sri Lanka have arguably two of the greatest batsmen of all-time. If they perform, England will find it tough to force a victory, especially given the absence of a frontline spinner. If their seam-bowling is the strong point, England’s batting in recent times has looked as sturdy as a house made of matchsticks built on quicksand. A lot will depend on the experience of Alastair Cook and Ian Bell at the top of the order. If they fail it spells trouble for England. I am going to stick my neck on the line and plump for a 1-1 draw.
My England XI: Cook, Robson, Balance, Bell, Root, Ali, Prior, Woakes, Jordan, Broad, Anderson. *
* If I were an England selector, and few have argued that I should be, I would swap James Taylor for Root and Steven Finn for Woakes.