In the wake of yet another harrowing series defeat at the hands of Australia, England’s squad selection for the upcoming tour of New Zealand is baffling, addressing few of the significant weaknesses exposed during the Ashes. An eagerness to not make too many changes is understandable if the selectors are hoping for continuation and development, but the few changes that have been made make little sense, with Mark Wood, Ben Stokes and Liam Livingston replacing Jake Ball, Tom Curran and Gary Ballance.
Whilst the return of Stokes, pending police investigation, will be a huge boost to the side, the other two changes appear to demonstrate the lack of a defined plan from the England selectors. Jake Ball, ranked by analysts CricViz as the unluckiest Test bowler in the past decade in terms of chances created to wickets, played just one test before being unceremoniously dropped. Gary Ballance did not even make an appearance. If the England selectors genuinely believe that Wood and Livingston are superior players, it begs the question as to why they were not selected for the Ashes tour in the first place. Neither Ball nor Ballance has done anything to justify being dropped, and so their omission borders on desperation from the England selectors. Wood’s injury has been cited by many as a reason for his omission, but it did not prevent his selection for the concurrent Lions tour. Ball, Ballance and Curran were far from the reason that England performed so pitifully this winter, and so can rightly feel hard done by as a result of their treatment. This is not to say that Wood nor Livingston are not excellent players, but the fact is that if they are now considered better, why were they not picked for the original tour?
Further to this, many of the issues exposed in Australia have been left unaddressed. Despite hopes that a career best summer had banished the questions over Moeen Ali’s selection, he was comprehensively outbowled by his counterpart Nathan Lyon, whilst looking equally unthreatening with the bat. Without the possibility of holding up an end through spin, excessive pressure was placed on England’s quicks, significantly blunting the side’s bowling attack. Moeen’s test career seems to be permanently stuck in limbo, with a batting average of 33 and bowling average of 40, he has never truly settled on a role within the side. At the beginning of summer England had looked to move Moeen to the role of second spinner, a role in which he thrived, but seemingly abandoned this approach following the failure Liam Dawson as a frontliner. The problem was not that two spinners could not work, it was that England had not selected their best slow left arm bowler. Both Jack Leach and Samit Patel must be considered two of the unluckiest players within the English game, both routinely overlooked despite rampant success within the county circuit. The Moeen conundrum needs to be solved as soon as possible if England are to find success in Test cricket, with a clear solution seeming to be a promotion to the middle-order, alongside the selection of a primary spin bowler. Despite this, the England selectors have selected neither Leach nor Patel for New Zealand, and in doing so have placed undue pressure on both Moeen and leg-spinner Mason Crane. Leach took over three times as many wickets as Crane in last year’s County Championship, and yet Crane was favoured, seemingly based on potential and attitude alone. For the sake of both Moeen and the team, selection must begin to be meritocratic once again. Players like Dawson and Crane may well have a future in international cricket, but their selection should not be down to the fact they are arbitrarily considered ‘good lads’.
A similar problem emerges when considering England’s top order strife. James Vince’s selection against Australia immediately raised eyebrows following his barren domestic form, and although a classy 83 in the first test appeared to answer his critics, he has struggled since. Speculation persists that he will drop down to 5 in New Zealand, swapping places with Malan. Malan’s stock has never been higher after impressing in the middle order this winter, but the swap still seems to be a risky attempt to shoehorn Vince into the side. It is easy to be seduced by Vince, for whom each innings is akin to a beautiful symphony, albeit one that ends after thirty seconds, and selectors are clearly not immune to enjoying his fluent strokeplay. Nonetheless, there are only so many attractive innings of 25 that can be tolerated before more is demanded, every England supporter would prefer a gritty hundred to Vince’s current output. By continuing to advocate Vince, the selectors undermine the efforts of County Championship batsmen, many of whom frequently outscore him, and places undue pressure on Malan, who could have excelled at 5. However, Vince’s style and work on the training ground have ensured him yet another last chance saloon.
Like all sport, cricket is a results business, and so the England side should reflect this, and be comprised of only the best English players. However, in this post-KP era, it seems England place as much emphasis on temperament as they do on quality, a system that has yielded only one away series victory since the 2013/14 Ashes. The blame must lie solely at the feet of the selectors, who have repeatedly failed to address issues within the side, and have their faults masked by home victories in favourable conditions. Selection reform is very much needed, the Australian model of giving greater power to the captain is the way forward in modern cricket. As the man most directly associated with performances, it is absurd that Joe Root does not have greater power in choosing his side, as he would have a firsthand view of the issues within the group. There is no doubt that, if Root were selecting the side, he would choose players with the highest quality as opposed to those with the best work ethic. England may very well win in New Zealand, but the long-term issues in the side are still unaddressed.