And, forgetting how the England team got where it is over the last couple of weeks, it’s all down to a "Must Win" last Test at the Oval starting next Thursday. That, at least, must be good for the moneymen at the Oval, but not, I think, for my nerves. You can’t help but wonder, however, at the state of England’s game as we come into the most important match we’ve played since 2005, and there are so many loose ends surrounding the home side.
I don’t know how we’ve got where we’ve got to, but, with the Australians seeming to improve and settle their side as the series goes on, the English sporting press has been scribbling at immense lengths over the last 10 days, over this and that, especially who should be in the team.
You can’t help but wonder at the way the sport is run in this country. There is a continuously expanding raft of very highly paid individuals who run English Cricket, and you can only ask yourself who, among the whole lot of them, has actually done the business at the sharp end for England over the last 20 years. Someone who understands and can respond to the special pressures which an Ashes Test Series puts on the players.
The answer, almost inevitably, is None of them.
As a contrast, on TV, we have Michael Atherton, who, in my simple view, has the best strategic brain on English Cricket today. We also have Nasser Hussain and even David Lloyd, who between them, seem to me to talk so much sense that you wonder why their views on being there and doing that are not seen as fundamental to the future success of the team. But they seem to be kept on the outside by the powers that be, when they are the guys who have the most meaningful experience available. Very, very odd!
So, call me old fashioned, but the skill and knowledge of recent England players should be fundamental to getting the team into the best possible shape. Their views are vital, but we simply don’t use them. At this level, it’s only so much about cricketing skills. The key issues beyond and above basic skills are attitude, confidence, mental toughness, resilience to pressure and being able to deliver under an almost intolerable load on an individual. Character, for want of a better word.
I remember, in another sport, watching the players in the Piccadilly World Match Play Golf Tournament at Wentworth in 1966 or so. On the practice ground, every player could hit the ball perfectly , with their caddies catching the golf-balls metronomically, almost without moving their feet, at a distance of 250 yards. But that was practice, and the real way the “Greats” showed why they were so good, is when they had to do exactly the same thing on the last 9 holes of the tournament on the Sunday afternoon. When you had one chance at the shot, and only perfection would be good enough. When your hands were shaking, your mind was scrambled but you still had to deliver. How different that was. Step forward the Jack Nicklauses and the Gary Players of this world.
The same is true of cricket at the highest level. Only the absolute best players make it happen in these hugely stressful situations. And quite frankly most of the England team is just not at that level.
So what should England do, having been thrashed by the Aussies in the last game? It needs strong nerves if you are a selector at this time, given the range of problems facing them.
Most importantly and specifically, we have a middle order (Nos. 3, 4 and 5) who amassed (if that’s the right word here) 16 runs between them in the six innings in the game. They should have scored nearer 300, which goes a long way to explain the current England predicament.
Everyone with an interest in Cricket in this country has their own view of what should be done, because it’s the sort of game which gets people talking. The first thing to accept is that SOMETHING must be done. But it would be too easy to make wholesale changes, to put up a brand new team which has then got to play brilliantly straight out of the box. It simply doesn’t work like that. So, here’s my four pennyworth.
Strauss and Cook are the best we’ve got as openers. Strauss has held the England batting together this year, and is the key wicket the Australians want to get each time England bats. And he's the captain.
Number 3 needs to be changed. It has been a bit unfair on Bopara during the Ashes. He came out of the West Indies tour having hit three centuries off them, and looking for all the world like he owned the spot. But Number 3 against the Australians is a massively different and difficult batting position. The West Indian bowlers, apart from Fidel Edwards are not world class, so perhaps Bopara flattered to deceive. No-one of his age, to my knowledge has ever managed to make it work at Number 3. And, in the last four games, he hasn’t. At his present state, he’s more like a decent No 5 or 6, but you can’t drop him down there for the Oval, that just looks like weakness, so he has to be dropped for a while. He’ll come back, because he’s a good player, but not for the next game.
So, is it Trott, or Key? Or both? Or someone else? I’m not sure if someone like Trott will be able to withstand the pressure of a Must Win game at the end of an Ashes Series. But he has scored a pile of runs and, with no England baggage, he must fancy his chances. Robert Key must deserve a go. He’s got the arrogance, the wisdom and his captaincy skills would be a real added benefit to Strauss who often looks very lonely out there. Also, just ask yourself who, currently playing in English Cricket has ever scored a double hundred against the Australians. Answer - Collingwood, and … Key. Robert Key, to coin a phrase is the key. I’d put him in.
With no Pietersen, the other alternative you’ve got is Ian Bell. To my mind, he’s a good stylist, but his mental make-up always seems to me to be too introverted for such a position. He’s definitely not the man you’d get out of bed for knowing he’s going to bat, and he’s also definitely not one of those players who can change a game single handedly. He has a fatal flaw, in that he gets his front leg across the line, and then can’t get the bat round it when he gets an inswinger. The Aussies have got this down to a T, and look how he’s been dismissed so far this year by them. So why should you keep on with him? I wouldn't.
My view is we should go with Trott and Key at 3 and 4. Key has the swagger which will irritate the Aussies and the maturity, and Trott is a man in great form, albeit at County level. It’s not an ideal situation, ie the selectors should not have got us into this position, but in the words of an ex Boss of mine – “We are where we are.”
But it’s a hell of a risk, and it could be the downfall of the team if neither of them get their act together. But, just keep reminding yourself of the 16 runs the current Nos. 3, 4 and 5 got in the last game. Anything has got to be better than that.
Collingwood deserves to keep his place at 5. He’s a gritty, workmanlike player. Remember, if it hadn’t have been for his Atherton-like defensive innings earlier this year, we’d have lost the Ashes already.
Prior has been the great success of the series for England in my eyes. He’s kept wicket well, and has now, against one of the best teams in the world, proved himself with his batting to be a genuine all rounder. He selects himself, so thank Goodness he at least doesn’t present a problem.
Number 7. Flintoff, fitness willing, returns for his last ever match playing for England. His figures, seen in the cold light of day, are not of the highest quality, but that doesn’t tell the story at all. His physical presence, his ability to inspire, and occasionally his ability, on his own, to turn the game England’s way in a couple of hours is unparalleled in the game. Even if he is only 80-odd % fit, he will make the other players feel better. They will feel more comfortable that, if they get out, Freddy is there later in the order to pick up the bits. So they feel more secure, so they play better.
Apart from being a lethal bowler like at Lords, or a fantastic batsman, as in Edgbaston, he looms over the game like few others. He is the last player the Aussies want to see in the side, which is a perfect reason for him playing, whether fully fit or not. His ability as an all-rounder makes the team selection so much easier. Play Flintoff, and with four other proper bowlers, you can play 6 recognised batsmen. It’s like playing with 12 men. And sometimes, that’s all you need.
So what about the bowlers?
Apart from Lords, they haven’t covered themselves in glory. And to win the game, it's very simple - you’ve got to take 20 wickets.
James Anderson, on his day, is the best bowler in the world. Give him a bit of swing in the air, and he can be unplayable now he’s developed the ability to swing it both ways. It’s just that, somedays, it’s just not his day, or the ball isn't swinging. His batting though continues to amaze. No-one in the history of Test Cricket, has had more consecutive innings without scoring a Duck. I think he’s up to 54. For a Number 10 batsman, that is simply the most ridiculously endearing record.
Steve Harmison. Now, here’s an intriguing player. Mercurial might be the word coined especially to describe him. He’s just as likely to destroy the opposition with his high bouncing vicious ball, as he is to send it careering towards Second Slip. The problem is you don’t know which of the two Harmisons is going to be on the field on any given day. He must be the most frustrating player to have under you, never quite knowing if he’s with you or with the fairies at any given moment. But, my own gut feeling is that, without him, you aren’t going to do the business, and with him you might, not will – Might. So put him in. You’ve got to take 20 wickets.
Broad is, as far as the Ashes this year are concerned, the least effective of the fast bowlers, but he’s still pretty decent, and you've still got to think of someone better. He got a 6 wicket haul in the last match, but that was only because the others were so poor. He’s still young, and is turning into a decent batsman, and I can’t think of a better bowler instead of him (which is a bit of a worry) so let’s include him.
And we need a spinner. Panesar can’t buy a wicket at the moment, he’s a liability as a fielder, and, Cardiff apart, his batting is non existent. Swann to me is better in every facet of the game, and therefore gets my vote. He’s a chirpy, extrovert individual who is capable of giving the Aussies a bit of their own medicine. They don’t like that – another good reason to have him there. He can bowl well, turns the ball a lot, and is a very handy bat. There’s no-one in the country to touch him in the spinner role at present.
So that’s it. My team is – Strauss (Captain), Cook, Key, Trott, Collingwood, Prior, Flintoff, Broad, Swann, Anderson and Harmison.
Let’s see what the selectors do.