“The truth is that England have not learnt that much. The same question marks and holes are still there.”
Those were the words of Michael Atherton as England’s two-Test series in New Zealand came to a close with Joe Root’s men slipping to a 1-0 defeat against a Black Caps side sitting at No 2 in the rankings.
With the series against South Africa on the horizon – the first Test is live on Sky Sports Cricket from Boxing Day – Athers, Mark Butcher, James Franklin, Nasser Hussain and Rob Key had their say on England’s big selection issues.
Should England persevere with Dom Sibley, whose first three Test innings yielded scores of 22, 12 and four? Should Moeen Ali return as spinner? Will James Anderson and Mark Wood be included as they fight towards fitness?
Read the pundits’ thoughts below…
DOM SIBLEY – IN OR OUT?
MIKE ATHERTON: “I don’t like to write anybody off after two Tests as someone like myself who started at 21 and was completely green and hopeless became pretty decent in Test cricket. Players can improve, adapt and get better but I suspect as of now that he is not going to be the opener in South Africa. He is not right for me as he looks a bit limited but that is not putting a line through him because players can get better. I think England might shove Joe Denly back up the order and have him opening with Rory Burns, who is a definite tick.”
MARK BUTCHER: “I have reservations about Sibley but I would be inclined to keep him there. The sample size is too small, you have not seen enough to take him out of the team. I have given up talking about technique and a perfect way of batting being the way to get results – the best player in the world, Steve Smith, throws the rulebook out the window and Rory Burns has twitches that would stop a less-determined player from scoring runs.
“So I am not going to hold Sibley’s quirky, open-chested technique against him until I have seen it undo him on more occasions. I would give him the South Africa tour. No one else made 1,000 runs in county cricket as a batsman, let alone an opener, so he has proved he can churn out runs. Zak Crawley is an option but he has played one Test innings miles out of position, so you would be taking as much of a punt on him as you are on Sibley and Sibley was first in the queue.”
NASSER HUSSAIN: “I think you have to go with Sibley. This guy has got thousands of runs in county cricket so you can’t just give him three innings. Graham Gooch bagged a pair in his first Test match and on that principle wouldn’t have been playing Test cricket after that.”
KEEP FAITH WITH OLLIE POPE?
ATHERS: “He looks a player to me. I haven’t really felt that since Root came into the team in 2012 – and you didn’t need to be a brain surgeon to realise he will play 100 Tests! Pope is the one since Root who looks like he will have a career. You get a sense, an instinct when you see somebody come in and he looks to have class. Just look at his first-class record for one. With 20-odd Tests until the Ashes down under, ideally you want to give someone like Pope an amount of cricket before that very tough series. If he goes there with runs and hundreds under his belt, he will be better able to cope with the hazards. It’s an opportunity to give him a run of games.”
NASSER: “He looks very organised, very compact and I like the fact he has an off-side game. I am sick and tired of people coming into the England side and only playing one side of the wicket. He can play all round the wicket. Yes, he is a little vulnerable outside off stump but he now has runs behind him and I think he is better than your No 6 for the next two years or so. He should be thinking about batting higher up the order, for Surrey when he plays for them – which won’t be a lot now – but for England as well. With Denly being 33, Pope could get to No 3 eventually.
WHO IS THE MAIN SPINNER?
ATHERS: “I’m not quite sure where Ali is with Test cricket – he says he wants to get back in but equally wanted to take a break – so I suspect England will go with Leach as a holding bowler. Thinking down the line, is Leach going to be your match-winner in Australia? I suspect not.
“You are looking for a wrist-spinner or a more-aggressive type of spinner, which is why I would have loved to have seen Matt Parkinson play in the second Test in New Zealand. It was a wonderful opportunity to give him a game and have a look at him. Perhaps he’s not ready, perhaps he bowls a bit too slowly but I’d say if he’s not ready why was he here in the first place?”
BUTCH: “Very straightforward – Ali. England have failed to pick a spin bowler and gone in with five seamers on a pitch that is very, very flat and that doesn’t swing or seam. What that tells me is that they don’t fancy Leach and giving him the chance to improve on the things they obviously feel he is not doing well enough, and don’t fancy Parkinson, a youngster who can do something different. They are not interested in either of those guys being out-and-out spinners and are going to use their spinner as a utility player who will hopefully score some lower-order runs. That brings Moeen right back into the frame, as much for his batting and all-round capabilities. England don’t view frontline spin as something that’s of much use to them. I do think Leach and Ali will both tour South Africa, though.”
ROB KEY: “Moeen is a frustrating cricketer. At his best, with bat and ball, he is a match-winner. He out-bowled Ravi Ashwin at home to India last year. His good is very, very good but the problem is that when he is not in that place there is no middle ground. He’s not going to do a decent job like Leach would do. I would definitely take both and play Ali at his best.”
WILL ANDERSON AND WOOD TOUR?
ATHERS: “The issue for Anderson is going to be proving his fitness and getting through a couple of first-class games, which I assume he will have to do. Given what happened at Edgbaston when he got injured in the Ashes and his age, England are going to have to say he has to get through two first-class games before he plays a Test so that is the challenge for him. If he does, then clearly he is in England’s best side. I would pick Wood as well if he is fit. South Africa is a place where you tend to win with pace.”
NASSER: “Anderson is England’s greatest-ever bowler. If he gets through the warm-up games [he plays]. Before his injury, actually, he hadn’t lost any of his skill, desire or heart so if all those boxes are ticked, I would definitely have Anderson back.”