England start their quest for redemption in Galle on 26 March. They’ve made a good start though, the selectors have shown some ruthlessness and dropped Eoin Morgan from the squad after his abject performance on the pitch in the UAE. (And possibly his nonchalance off the pitch.) James Tredwell was the surprise replacement for him in the squad, with Samit Patel also being added, but it’s not a sure thing that either of them will replace Morgan in the final XI.
The obvious candidate is probably Ravi Bopara. Depressingly, I think he’s also the most likely replacement, despite the fact that he has only ever scored runs against the West Indies. The fact that Bopara is even in the squad baffles me. He has been in and out of the side since 2007 and in that time his overall numbers are 553 runs at 34.56. Those are probably reason enough to be dropped, but when one throws out the 355 runs he made in three matches against the West Indies his average drops to an inexcusable 15.23 with a high score of 44*. Forty-four. By contrast, if one applies the same criteria to Graeme Swann he still averages 17.63 with a high score of 85. Even James Anderson averages 12.89 against teams other than the Windies! The excuse usually given for this is that Bopara can bowl a bit too. That’s technically true, but his bowling is actually worse than his batting: he has one career wicket for the cost of 212 runs.
Fortunately for England there are options apart from Bopara. Samit Patel, whilst still not as fit as I think Flower would like him to be, has put in a lot of work recently and has made it clear that his ambition is to play in the Test side. Whilst I don’t think he is a long-term solution, he may be useful in the two Tests in Sri Lanka as a spinner who can bat reasonably well. Graeme Swann already fills this role to an extent, but there is a case for letting Patel have a go at Test level. There isn’t anyone in the side who is demonstrably a better batsman than Patel (except Tim Bresnan, more on whom below) and whilst I don’t think he can bat to an acceptable standard in Tests, he has done enough that it might be worth giving him a go and finding out for sure.
I still, however, think the best option is Tim Bresnan. He’s a very good bowler anyway and will probably do well on a slower pitch. More than that though, he averages 45 in Test matches. Even if he were to slot straight in at number six and not bowl at all he would probably be the best batsman available. As it is, if he plays it will probably be at seven with Prior at six. That is still a perfectly good option. That would mean that England would still have a very solid 1-7 (and actually a more reliable number six than we have had in quite some time) and with Broad and Swann still effectively bat down to number nine. That would not, however, leave a place for Steven Finn who has been pushing hard for one. Right now, I don’t think that could be avoided, but a good batting performance from Bresnan might see the selectors stick with him at number six in the summer. It’s very, very unlikely of course, but if that did happen it would open up a place for Finn. Since that is so unlikely, however, it might be worth playing Bresnan in the first match and Finn in the second and let them effectively go head to head to see who gets the nod in May. The caveat to that is that playing Finn would lengthen England’s tail.
It’s an interesting decision to make, and whilst I fear they will go with the wrong one (Bopara), Flower has done a very good job and I have a fair bit of faith in him.