Monday, June 20, 2005

Embarrassment of riches


I was in the mood this morning to produce a very long post about England's thrilling victory over Australia yesterday, not to mention Bangladesh's even more thrilling victory over them on Saturday. But there has been oodles of this stuff all over the press and, in any case, it's hot today and I'm busy, so a short one will have to suffice.

I'm quite sure Australia will bounce back from this poor start (as they did in 1997), but they look pretty shattered at the moment. Watching Ponting's face sink into crumpled despair as his side lost again yesterday was a joy for any Englishman (or Welshman, we seem to have disappeared when it comes to international cricket, swallowed up by the gobbling English giant which won't even acknowledge us as a separate nation - still, with Simon Jones on such good form, who cares?).

Much as the Australians have been making excuses and promising better things to come, the engine isn't firing on their vehicle at the moment. What's more, we've been able to enjoy the spectacle of the Australian media laying into the team (more here... and here*). Times like this don't come around very often, so let's enjoy the fun of watching the arrogant giants of cricket humbled by teams they really should have beaten.

The real question for England is - regardless of how the remaining games go - what to do about team selection? We have an amazingly solid top order, but also an embarrassment of choice. Graham Thorpe has always (well, usually) been an automatic selection for the No. 5 spot but Pietersen's performance yesterday gives him a momentum that may be unstoppable. Sentimentally satisfying though it would be to see Thorpe end his Test career in a blaze of Ashes glory (and he's capable of it), the fear that Pietersen must be striking into Australian hearts at the moment - fear he seems to be unable to feel himself - gives him a psychological advantage not shared by any other England batsman.

Picking Thorpe would be the safe choice. He's the determined, back-to-the-wall batsman who pulls us out of trouble and saves us when things are going badly. He has an excellent record against Australia, and his recent form has been superb (especially in the Test arena). He is immensely experienced, whereas Pietersen has never played a Test match.

But, if experience were everything, Henman would win Wimbledon this year. Pietersen is the dangerous choice, both for England (what if he fails?) and Australia (if he succeeds). English cricket has too often opted for the safe bet, the unadventurous choice, the known quantity. Like the nation it represents, it has appeared sober, restrained, cautious, perhaps a little dull. It's managed to rebuild its reputation from the dark days of the nineties, to the extent that it can now look the world's No.1 team squarely in the face and refuse to be bullied any more. But there is a difference between not losing - and winning. Pietersen's magic - which has also been on display in first-class matches, so he's not just a slogger - may be the vital ingredient that England need to take back the Ashes which they last won almost twenty years ago.

There's no point in getting carried away. This is only one week out of many on a long tour. We may find, in the middle of August, that we've got our backs to the wall again - in which case, we might be foolish to drop Thorpe. But we have among us, qualified to play for us, a man whose ability seems beyond the human, who seems to have been capable of producing gold from dirt. If it were my choice, today, I would stick with Thorpe. But in a dream world I would play them both (and Ian Bell, whose place in the line-up must surely be guaranteed at the moment).

(For what it's worth, Dickie Bird would pick Pietersen and Bell, and drop Thorpe.)

* And here. Rub salt into the wound - moi?


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