Ravi Bopara, Eoin Morgan and James Hildreth are going head-to-head this week for the right to succeed Paul Collingwood in the England Test side. All three are playing for the England Lions in a four-day game against Sri Lanka at Derby, and the prize for this particular instance of ‘the winner takes it all’ is a starting place in the three-match Test series against the Sri Lankans which begins in Cardiff on May 26.
But I wonder if the three young Lions could yet be playing for two places, not one? Down at Whitgift School, in Croydon, there is also a highly significant County Championship match taking place between Surrey and Essex. Alastair Cook and Chris Tremlett are both playing, but the real significance of this fixture is that it sees Kevin Pietersen’s first proper comeback match since the hernia operation which caused him to come home early from the World Cup back in March.
Pietersen did play for Surrey against the students of Cambridge MCCU last week, of course, but scored only 30 and 48 in a game which, embarrassingly for captain Kev, ended in a heavy defeat for a predominantly young and inexperienced Surrey side.
But I’m in no doubt that Pietersen needs to show the England selectors something in the game against Essex if he is to be picked for the opening Test against Sri Lanka. I’m sure that at least one selector will be at Whitgift, while the majority of England’s hierarchy will surely be in Derby watching the Lions, and KP has to prove he is fit enough and properly ready both physically and mentally for a five-day Test.
For the moment, however, let’s assume that Pietersen will take his place in an England top five at Cardiff that will read: Strauss, Cook, Trott, Pietersen, Bell. That leaves the No 6 batting position to be filled because, now that Tim Bresnan has been ruled out of the entire Sri Lanka series with a recurrence of his worrying calf injury, I do not expect England even to think about going into the first Test with Matt Prior batting at six and with five bowlers forming the lower middle-order.
With Bresnan to bat at No 7 above both Stuart Broad and Graeme Swann, it was possible that this option would have been taken – at least at some stage during the Sri Lanka series, if not at Cardiff – but now it will surely be six batsmen, plus Prior at No 7 and four bowlers.
And that, to my mind, enormously strengthens Bopara’s hand because his medium-pacers represent a real option as a fifth bowler. I already had Bopara down as the heavy favourite to take the Collingwood position, and although he is not quick he is certainly nippy and he moves the ball around enough off the seam and a bit in the air to be a real early-season bowling option for Strauss if he wants to give his frontline quick bowlers a little rest.
Morgan also did himself no favours by opting to play in the Indian Premier League, which Bopara rejected, but the England hierarchy rates Morgan highly and I think they want to keep him involved at Test level although he did not figure as the spare batsman chosen for the winter Ashes series.
Hildreth is the real outsider for a Test place, and it may be that the selectors are lining him up for a one-day international outing first. The Somerset batsman, however, has impressed as captain of the Lions during the winter and he is a talented player. The Strauss/Andy Flower regime would certainly have no compunction about throwing a young player they rate straight into a Test match.
If it was my choice, I would go with Bopara at six because he has three Test hundreds to his name to Morgan’s one, he has run into form in the last fortnight with Essex, and because he offers the extra bowling option. Perhaps Morgan will get KP’s place? Whatever happens, both at Derby and at Whitgift, it is great for England to have genuine competition for places right across the Test team.
I am particularly encouraged by the number of younger bowlers who now seem to be developing quickly in county cricket. Outside of the likely starting Test fast bowling trio of Anderson, Broad and Tremlett there is (besides the unfortunate Bresnan) now the likes of Steven Finn, Graham Onions, Ajmal Shahzad, Chris Woakes and Jade Dernbach, plus others a little bit further down the pecking order such as Toby Roland-Jones, Stuart Meaker and James Harris who are all coming on very well.
As for spinners, the younger brigade are headed by Adil Rashid, Scott Borthwick and Danny Briggs, while it pleases me no end to see Monty Panesar back bowling well and with clearly increased confidence for Sussex. In my capacity as an official observer for the ECB’s High Performance unit, I have seen Panesar bowl against both Hampshire and Nottinghamshire in recent weeks and he is starting to complete his action fully again which is the real key to his bowling.
Monty Panesar is a proven Test bowler and gives you great control through his capacity to bowl long spells at one end. I very much hope his Test career is not over yet; not by a long way.