Thursday, 8 October 2009

One step forward, two years back

England's Test and one-day squads to tour South Africa clearly show the selectors taking everything into account. They have one eye firmly on the future, looking to develop younger players. They have one eye on the past, looking at previous tourists ready for an England recall. And they have one eye on the present, glued to this season's performances in the County Championship. We're talking three eyes here, all looking in different directions.

Which may explain why the selectors seem to have lost sight of their objectives. There's no doubting that the Test squad for this tour represents a monumental shake-up, with new players being brought in and what is perceived as chaff being ruthlessly chucked away. Oh yes, you won't see any aging Test match failures in this squad. You won't see any Ian Bells, any Paul Collingwoods, any...oh.

Yes, the under- and overachiever, the gruesome twosome, the most painful partnership you'll ever have to watch, continue to hold down Test places in spite of their increasing years and decreasing contributions. Hold on, you might say – Bell scored two 50s in the Ashes. Yes, but he's still a top-level bottler of the same ilk as Hick and Ramprakash who is terrified of taking responsibility in a batting order. Well, hold on yet further, you might add – Collingwood saved our skin in Cardiff and was one of the highest run-scorers in the recent ICC Champions Trophy. He also did nothing for the rest of the Ashes, and one-day form is no indicator of Test match ability.

Which brings me onto Luke Wright. The Sussex slogger is by far and away the most baffling, absurd and ire-inducing inclusion in the 16-man Test squad. I almost feel sorry for him, because I think the whole thing is a joke that's gone on for too long and one day he'll realise he's been played for a sap.

The simple fact of the matter is that Luke Wright is not an international cricketer, and certainly isn't anywhere near good enough to play at Test level. He can slog the ball, but no better than your average blacksmith (Ian Blackwell ahoy), and he can – apparently – bowl, although all evidence to the contrary suggests it's a miracle he makes it to the crease without falling over. But he is, to all extents and purposes, a club cricketer with big arms. National selector Geoff Miller said they don't see Wright as "a like-for-like replacement" for Andrew Flintoff. Damn right he isn't. Flintoff could play cricket.

Coming to a Test match near you

Ravi Bopara, meanwhile, has been given the boot after one poor series, in which he arguably batted in the wrong position (he's a middle-order Test batsman, not a number three). His immediate omission from both the Test and one-day squads is a travesty. Still, he's young and highly talented, so I have faith he'll bounce back.

The same, sadly, can't be said of Owais Shah, one of the great talents of late never to fill his boots. Told he had four games in the Champions Trophy to save his place, Shah duly hit 44 and 98 against the two best bowling line-ups in the world, including a matchwinning knock against South Africa. It was too late. He was always going to be dropped. He's been lied to.

He's not the only one. Steve Harmison's omission is understandable, but the selectors haven't been straight with him. They at least owe him an explanation. You're past it. You're no good away from home. Hearing you crying into your pillow about how much you miss Freddie might disturb the younger players. But instead of an excuse Geoff Miller provided a lie – that he's not been consistent this season. Harmison took 51 Championship wickets at 22 runs apiece (Liam Plunkett took 49 at 24).

Ah yes, Plunkett: the man on form. The selectors' one eye on this year's County Championship averages fittingly lacks depth perception, failing to see that Plunkett doesn't have the tactical nouse to think out a world-class batsman on a flat wicket. As for Sajid Mahmood coming back into the frame, well – we've slipped back in time. Mahmood and Plunkett last played for England in 2007, alongside Hoggard, Harmy and a plucky Chris Tremlett, not to mention Monty Panesar, then being hailed as a future world-beater (interesting to see how that turned out).

Undoubtedly, the squads could be worse. It's encouraging to see Adil Rashid picked over Panesar, and Jonathan Trott's inclusion in the one-day squad is a long overdue one, even if it does represent a cost-cutting measure whereby players stay at their parents' houses (a quarter of England's squad was born in South Africa).

But the inclusion of previous disappointments Mahmood and Plunkett suggests we've gone one step forward, but two years back in time.