England’s immediate task in Test cricket may be the series against Bangladesh and Pakistan, but their minds will already be halfway to Australia and this winter’s Ashes.
Once again they will travel as holders – that was no protection in 2006 as a vengeful team of greats ripped England apart, but four years on Australia may not have the personnel for a repeat performance.
When the job in hand is Bangladesh, away from home on pitches with some life, they can hardly be blamed for looking ahead to what would be, unquestionably, the ultimate prize. A pre-Ashes summer is always one of slightly uneasy anticipation, a phoney war. Players, especially those on the fringes of selection, strive that bit harder to prove themselves worthy of cricket’s most cherished plane ticket.
It does not help that the opposition are weak, and performances in July may not reflect likely returns in November, when the collective mettle will be severely tested. Bangladesh, away from the dead tracks of home, should provide little resistance, while Pakistan remain mercurially talented.
The opposition, then, may be weaker than England have been used to over the last year, but there remain issues over team selection that this summer’s Test programme may help resolve. The perennial poser of who should bat at first wicket down refuses to go away. England are likely to choose between Warwickshire colleagues Jonathan Trott and Ian Bell, respectively too intense and too diffident for the role, but should be considering Kevin Pietersen, who has returned to inspiring form and needs to be challenged with greatness if he is to attain it.
A decision also needs to be made on how to balance the XI, and whether the need is greater for an extra batsman or bowler. Tim Bresnan is the only credible candidate to bat at No.7 as an all-rounder, while the presence of Graeme Swann and Stuart Broad gives England width if not depth in their batting order for that scenario. The Andrews, Flower and Strauss, are pragmatic, even cautious men, however.
The danger that a house-of-cards batting slate will collapse in on itself is likely to override the potential benefit of the extra bowler, although England will not discount the option of a mob-handed seam attack, and Bresnan’s worth as a workhorse in what will be punishing conditions is a consideration in itself. Jokers in the pack are another feature of the Ashes build-up.
The surprise factor can be a significant one, as Jonathan Trott demonstrated last summer with a glorious century on debut in the series decider. Eoin Morgan, who has been so impressive in the shorter formats, is one who will be considered, although his promotion would be in spite of a patchy record in the County Championship. Wizened counsel suggests a tall fast bowler is a necessary ingredient for a winning team in Australia. Stuart Broad qualifies on inches, but does better pitching the ball up, and has rarely bullied top-class batsmen.
The name on many lips is Middlesex’s Steven Finn, a totemic ‘7, who showed promise even on the lifeless surfaces he encountered in Bangladesh. England will give him opportunities this summer, and he will probably have to bowl himself out of consideration rather than into it, even if the squad rather than team is his likely destination.
Destination is what will be concerning England this summer; the coaching staff will endeavour to keep the players focused, but this close to a winnable Ashes tour, everything is a means to an end.
Balancing the expectation and anticipation will be, at times, perhaps a harder job than dealing with opponents who are to be respected but not feared.