For a while I’ve had serious doubts about the balance of this England team without Andrew Flintoff. Before I could put them to paper, Shane Warne beat me to it this morning.
Warney was in typically uncompromising form as he laid into England’s plans to bat Stuart Broad at No.7 against South Africa this winter. Broad is, for Warne, “a decent bowler and a reasonable batsman, just not an international allrounder”. Often caricatured as a provocative Aussie in his Times column, Warne is as adept at pinpointing English weakness in print as he was from 22 yards.
But while Warne focuses on the potential impact that batting at No.7 might have on Broad’s future, in the immediate term the damage is to our chances in South Africa. The Flintoff era may be over, but his legacy – Ashes wins in 2005 and 2009 with a five-man attack – remains. Without Flintoff, England have no credible Test allrounder. Yet Luke Wright’s selection in the squad would imply that, wherever Broad bats, Andy Flower and Andrew Strauss are determined to stick to their formula of five batsman, Matt Prior and five bowlers.
An extra bowler gives Strauss more options but at what cost? We saw the dangers at Headingley – England all out for 102 in the first innings, defeat by an innings and 80 runs. Batting at No.7, Broad’s swashbuckling second innings 61 didn’t hide his 13-ball three when it mattered. If his lack of a first-class century and first-class average of 26.59 do little to inspire your confidence, then don’t look at his last 11 innings in ODIs – 0, 0*, 8, 3, 0, 6*, 2, 2, 22, 0, 1. For now Broad is a bowler who bats – Warne remarks that he doesn’t relish the fast, short ball, while Brett Lee would testify that he’s not too hot against the quick yorker either. With Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and possibly Wayne Parnell waiting in South Africa there may not be much in between.
“The only time a team should go with five bowlers is when one of them is a genuine allrounder”, says Warne. For him, Adil Rashid is now England’s only genuine allround option, but with Graeme Swann virtually nailed in and England not picking two spinners in South Africa since 1965, that appears far-fetched. Wright is the other bowling option at No.7, but despite a decent season with Sussex it would surprise many if he were to make an impact at Test level at this stage in his career.
Without a reliable runscorer at No.7, there is increased pressure on a top six that has not looked convincing for a while. England’s current top order contains just one established player fit and in form – Andrew Strauss. With five batsman – Cook, Bell, Pietersen, Trott and Collingwood – theoretically to fill the remaining four places the selectors have a tough decision to make. Paul Collingwood has looked brittle and his recent return to ODI form confuses matters, while if Ian Bell is dropped then someone must move up to bat at No.3. As for Matt Prior, while he has proved himself with the bat at Test level he averaged just 32.62 against Australia and his overall average off 44 compares unfavourably with the No.6 of South Africa (JP Duminy – 48.62) and Australia (Marcus North – 47.90). To follow him with a flimsy lower-middle order is a big risk.
Yet play all six batsmen and Prior at seven, with a four-man attack and Collingwood as a bowling option, and suddenly the team looks a lot more solid. At home you can afford to take chances, but in South Africa England must focus on making themselves difficult to beat. Five bowlers should be a luxury anyway – but worryingly Broad, Swann and James Anderson showed over the summer that they are as capable of going missing as they are of match-winning spells. Now, away from home, they must prove that they have the discipline to win games as part of a four-man attack. If they can’t, are they good enough?
It should not have escaped England’s notice that both Tests that Australia won in South Africa earlier this year they entered with six batsman and four bowlers. For the other one, they pushed Brad Haddin up to No.6 to include Bryce McGain, and got stuffed. There is a lesson in there somewhere.
Sam Collins is website editor of thewisdencricketer.com