England named their sixteen man squad to tour South Africa from December to February, and there were some surprises.
They recalled a South African-born batsman in his mid-thirties who hasn’t scored a test century for almost three years.
But unfortunately they didn’t trump for their all-time record run scorer, Kevin Pietersen, rather they chose Nick Compton, who had even given up hope himself of a recall. Compton played the last of his nine tests at Headingley against New Zealand in May 2013. These were the same opponents he’d scored his debut test century three months earlier in Dunedin. He followed that up with another ton in Wellington a week later. Born in Durban he will certainly be in comfortable surroundings which may help him overcome his inability to ever look comfortable in any of his seventeen test innings thus far.
There lies my concern with the Middlesex batsman. He always looks as if he’s having to be at the very top of his game just to remain at the crease at this level. Since his last test appearance he has returned to Middlesex from Somerset where he moved in order to increase his tally of runs hoping to catch the eye of the selectors. He was happy to make it publicly known he had given up hope of a recall, hence the return to Lord’s. He played an important part in Middlesex’s second place in the County Championship last season scoring 1,171 runs at 37.77 with two centuries. A modest return but one presumably impressive enough for James Whitaker, a similarly modest performer in his time, to give him the nod.
Compton isn’t the only player returning to the fold as Gary Ballance gets another chance to resurrect a once-promising career which took a troubling turn as he seemed uncertain of his own technique earlier this year. Ballance has four test centuries to his name from fifteen matches and only Herbert Sutcliffe and Len Hutton took fewer innings to reach their first thousand test runs for England. When he returned to Yorkshire he didn’t necessarily remove any trees from their roots but he was steady. He has undoubted talent and is a welcome return to a team which desperately needs some experience and hopefully he’ll be back at number five where he looked most comfortable.
The biggest shock/decision of the party is the binning of Ian Bell. Bell’s form has been indifferent over the past eighteen months but he still has a depth of experience England would’ve done well to call upon against the number one test nation. With one hundred and eighteen tests behind him, twenty-two centuries and an average above forty seven last time he played in South Africa, Bell will be a very big hole to fill. One could argue the writing was on the wall for the classy Warwickshire batsman. His last test century came twenty-four innings ago. During that time he has passed fifty just four times but still averaged more than Bairstow, Buttler, Stokes and Moeen, on the recent Pakistan tour and they all have a seat booked on the plane to South Africa.
Ultimately, Bell has paid the price for not being as good as he could be or has been. It remains to be seen whether his replacement will score more than he might have, but there is little doubt the hosts will be far happier with him back in Birmingham than in Durban.
Who will bat at number three is not clear but one suspects James Taylor will get the nod, particularly if Compton opens with Cook. An alternative would see Alex Hales come in at three, where he bats for his county, and have Taylor at five and Ballance at six. This could be the line-up for the First Test on Boxing Day in Durban as the news is Ben Stokes is unlikely to be fully fit by then. Stokes has made the squad as he is expected to be fit further in the series, an indication of how important he is to the make-up and balance of the side.
The bowling is the one area with most change. Adil Rashid, who bowled okay and batted much better in the UAE, will miss the trip although he is expected to be in the One-Day side particularly as Whitaker confirmed he has missed out this time “to give him more white ball experience”. The beneficiary of Rashid’s dumping is Samit Patel. The Nottinghamshire all-rounder found a place on the UAE trip after Zafar Ansari injured a hand. He has retained his place at the expense of Rashid, who appeared to bowl and bat better. Presumably, England are less concerned with Patel carrying drinks than Rashid.
One selection which does excite is that of Mark Footitt. Footitt has taken 160 first-class wickets over the past two years for Derbyshire and has recently just signed for Surrey and as a left-arm seamer he offers decent variation. Neither Finn or Wood have been fit enough to make the trip and Footitt faces the opportunity of cementing his place in the side at their expense. Liam Plunkett has been left out, something which puzzles just as much as the other omissions. He could consider himself unlucky not to have played in the Sharjah Test Match when England went with three spinners, and yet he does not even make the plane this time as Chris Jordan, who didn’t even make the original sixteen to UAE, keeps his place in the squad.
Chris Woakes earns a place in the squad probably for his ODI performances where he seems far better suited than in the longer form of the game. He made the last of his four test appearances at The Oval against India in August 2014. He has gained more pace since his debut in the final Ashes Test in 2013 and has a reasonable county record. He is clearly a beneficiary to some of the injuries in the fast bowling department for England and if he does get an opportunity to show what he can do would do well to take advantage. From next season the Curran brothers at Surrey will both be eligible for England and there are one or two others who are knocking on the door.
Following the announcement Ian Bell tweeted his obvious disappointment and evident surprise
To which former South African wicket-keeper, Mark Boucher responded with the view from the hosts camp
Whitaker explained the reasons for dropping Bell as well as the other selection decisions
“Ian Bell has been an outstanding player for many years and undoubtedly still has plenty to offer England in the future. It was clearly a difficult decision but he has struggled for runs in recent series and we felt that it was the right time for him to take a break and spend time working on his game out of the spotlight.
"The inclusion of Nick Compton and Gary Ballance alongside Alex Hales, Joe Root and James Taylor gives Trevor Bayliss and Alastair Cook plenty of options in the top order.
"Adil Rashid showed plenty of promise in the UAE but the conditions in South Africa make the likelihood of playing two spinners extremely remote. Although he would have been selected as a back up spinner we feel there is an excellent opportunity for him to spend some time developing his white ball skills in the lead up to the ICC World T20 in March. It is likely that Adil will travel to Australia to play for a Big Bash franchise."
Whether Bell will ever find a place again in an England shirt is very much in the balance at the moment. He cannot go back to county cricket and score loads of runs to be ready for the summer and yet there lies much of the problem that is the enigma attributed to Ian Bell. Whenever he has had to do that in the past he has found the county game far too tame for his burgeoning talent. So a mountain of county runs rarely points to good form on the test stage as often Bell’s problems are between his ears rather than down his bat handle.
England begin their tour with a warm-up match against a South African XI in Potchefstroom on December 15th. The First Test begins in Durban on Boxing Day with further matches at Cape Town, Johannesburg and Centurion, before five ODIs and two T20s sees the tour finish on February 21st.
TOUR SQUAD: Alistair Cook (Captain); Nick Compton, Alex Hales, James Taylor, Joe Root, Gary Ballance, Moeen Ali, Jonny Bairstow, Jos Buttler, Ben Stokes, Samit Patel, James Anderson, Stuart Broad, Mark Footitt, Chris Woakes, Chris Jordan