England selectors stick rather than twist for Champions Trophy challenge
The England one-day squads announced by the national selector, James Whitaker, at Edgbaston took no one by surprise, which is probably a good thing. Just before the 2015 World Cup this same group of selectors , leaving Eoin Morgan in a particularly nasty lurch and then summoned up Gary Ballance as a potential No3. Whereupon England performed as tepidly as a cup of tea that had been ignored for 20 minutes before slinking home in disgrace, .
This time they are sticking solidly to plan A. Morgan is no longer in any sort of lurch and has helped to shape a much more dynamic team. The overhaul was completed in good time so there are only six players in the Champions Trophy squad who endured England’s World Cup campaign in Australasia in 2015 – Morgan, Moeen Ali, Jos Buttler, Alex Hales, Joe Root and Chris Woakes.
Morgan, notionally a Middlesex man, now has an extraordinary schedule. It is probably easier to spot a booted warbler this spring than Morgan clad in his county colours. He returns to England having played two (out of a possible seven) games for the Kings XI Punjab in the Indian Premier League – he was rather more in demand for the Peshawar Zalmi in Pakistan’s T20 competition in February.
However from 5 May, when England are in Bristol to play the first of two ODIs against Ireland Morgan’s international commitments take over. For these matches the other IPL boys – Buttler, Ben Stokes and Woakes – have been excused. After that the Champions Trophy squad assemble in Loughborough on 15 May before disappearing to a training camp in Spain for four days. There follows three ODIs against South Africa and then comes England’s quest to win the Champions Trophy for the first time – they were runners-up on the last two occasions the tournament has been held here, in 2004 and 2013. Unusually England are one of the favourites in an eight-team competition.
The selectors have not been tempted by any late swerves for the tournament. The solitary gamble is the selection of Durham’s Mark Wood, who has been beset by so many injuries over the last 18 months. He is seen as a potential wildcard when England are in the field and a source of much positive merriment when they are in the dressing room. Wood can bowl fast, with variety, and he is the sort of cricketer who “does things”. Hence he might be the man to conjure a wicket when batsmen are set in the middle of an innings. Wood has been preferred to Steven Finn; so too has Jake Ball. Stuart Broad, for all his experience and expertise in English conditions, remains on the sidelines.
Elsewhere the preference for continuity rather than curiosity among the selectors abounds. For the two games against Ireland – the second is at Lord’s on 7 May – Ben Duckett keeps his place in the squad ahead of Liam Livingstone of Lancashire, who excelled for the Lions in the UAE during the winter and who has had a brilliant start to the championship season. Livingstone is advancing at a rare pace. Unlike Duckett he is also a superb fielder and a useful bowler but he must wait his turn despite his rich vein of form. It may be the selectors have felt a pang of guilt about Duckett’s treatment over the winter. Hence there is the nagging doubt they have picked the fairest squad rather than the best one for the games against Ireland.
There is also a strange absence of clarity over the wicketkeeping position. Sam Billings, rather than England’s Test keeper, Jonny Bairstow, will don the gloves against Ireland even though both are likely to be in the team. But when Jos Buttler returns from the IPL, where he has been playing as a specialist batsman, he will resume behind the stumps.
So the one-day personnel have been sorted – unless there is a spate of injuries. The selectors can therefore begin to turn their attention to the Test matches, which do not take place until July. Unusually there are more variables when contemplating that side. Moreover the selectors will be able take into account form in domestic cricket more readily since the evidence is already mounting.
Some intriguing names are surfacing. Once more Livingstone is suddenly in contention; Mark Stoneman, with two centuries for his new employer, has discovered that the pitches are a bit flatter at The Oval than at Chester-le-Street while Ballance, so invisible on the Indian leg of England’s winter tour but now liberated by the captaincy of Yorkshire, has scored 508 runs in three matches. Can they all be ignored? Perhaps the selectors, so predictable in April, can entertain us with the odd surprise at the end of June.