Back on 23 September, Charlie Dagnall, county bowler and BBC TMS commentator appearing on the BBC Five Live sports panel show Fighting Talk, made the comment that cricket has a habit of shooting itself in the foot. Little did he know that, through a combination of individual impulsivity and management madness, the ordinance heading for English cricket’s toes was less .22cal and more RPG.
Following the ODI played the next day, which England won by 124 runs, All-Rounder Ben Stokes, who scored 73 in the game, allegedly assaulted a member of the public outside a nightclub in Bristol, where the game had been played. He was subsequently arrested and teammate Alex Hales voluntarily returned to Bristol to aid in the investigation the next day. This would have been bad enough, but the squad released that Wednesday was so far out of left field that BBC cricket correspondent Jonathan Agnew described it as a team picked by “Lucky-dip England” and Australian commentator Jim Maxwell said that it will be “one of the worst batting line-ups” to make the trip to Australia.
So where do we stand now? At the time of writing, Ben Stokes and Alex Hales are suspended from England cricket until a police investigation is completed, but Stokes is still named in the ashes squad and both are reportedly among those to receive a central contract when the announcement is made in the coming days. It is understood that should formal charges be brought against Stokes, there is a high probability that he would not be on the plane to Australia due to the subsequent criminal proceedings which would require his presence. Should Stokes be charged, which in the opinion of this writer is the most likely scenario, where would that leave the England side? Honestly, up a very particular creek without a paddle.
The selectors weren’t in the best position to start with. They named all the easy picks — Cook, Root, Ali, Anderson, Broad etc. — and made a few of the slightly harder decisions correctly, with Malan and Stoneman keeping their places and Westley dropped. But there the sanity ended. No Mark Wood? Explicable through injury, but only just. Gary Balance back in (again…)? Officially he was out with injury, but we all knew which way he was headed after the South Africa series. But James Vince? Dropped after failing to pass 50 in seven tests in 2016 by consistently succumbing to wide balls and averaging less than one of England’s batting coaches Paul Collingwood in county cricket this summer, it is unbelievable that the selectors think that he will survive, let alone score runs under the greatest pressure that an English cricketer can be subjected to.
Being very generous, we can at least say that he’s played test cricket, but that cannot be said for the next three picks. Surrey’s Ben Foakes and Craig Overton, and 20-year-old leg spinner Mason Crane of Hampshire will be making the trip Down Under. The Surrey men, while their selection for this year’s ashes, are tried and tested county players and have performed well this season but should, say, Johnny Bairstow or James Anderson pick up an injury in the intervening period, could you imagine filling their roles with an untested debutant at the Gabba? Steve Smith would think that Christmas had come early.
And Mason Crane? Could you imagine the looks on the faces of the Australian batsmen if, instead of a hypothetically injured Moeen Ali, a small, blond, 20-year-old English leggie was standing at his mark in Brisbane? The Cheshire cat comes to mind. With the greatest of respect to a man who is a far better leg spinner than I could ever dream to be, this ashes series has come maybe as many as five years early for Crane. Leg spin is a fickle art, he needs time to develop his skills and learn how to bowl to the best batsmen in the world, and on-the-job learning is not something which is in any way desired in an Ashes series.
His selection becomes even stranger when one realises that we had a perfectly good, tried and tested leg spin bowler ready to go. Of all those aggrieved by his work, chairman of selectors James Whitaker will surely find that his letter from Adil Rashid contains the highest frequency of some extremely choice language. Rashid is not only tried and tested in test match cricket, but he has taken the most one day wickets since the last world cup. He’s not a direct replacement for Ali by any stretch, but if the selectors were that keen on picking a leggie, he was surely the best option.
And all this is assuming Stokes goes to Australia! If it should be that case that he does not make the trip, the question then becomes one of who will replace the man who has been the keystone of the England side for the last three years. The general consensus is that there’s no way he can be fully replaced as an all-rounder, as either a bowler or a batsman. Most likely would be replacing him as a batsman. If this were the case, a simple option would be to have Ballance bat six, but his stodgy style of batting would be a poor fit for the attacking requirements of that position. If they were to bring in players from outside, Jos Buttler or Jason Roy would be the obvious choices, but Buttler hasn’t shown any form in red ball cricket in his very few appearances of late, and picking Roy would mean adding another debutant, not to mention one who has technical flaws which the aussie quicks will be all to ready to exploit at the highest level.
All in all, it appears that this winter might be another of discontent for the English viewer. The squad is weak, and its best player might yet not even make the trip. A glimmer of hope remains. Stokes could play, Cook and Root could score mountains of runs, Broad and Anderson could send the aussies skittling like leaves in the wind. Heck, Crane could take a 10-fer on an Adelaide bunsen. For the time being though, I wouldn’t count on it.