Vince selection continues batting merry-go-round

England’s latest Ashes squad represents further muddled thinking from the selectors who appear to have run out of batting ideas.

 

James Vince Getty
Is James Vince the man to solve England’s number three woes? (Photo Credit: Getty Images).

 

In the backdrop of the Ben Stokes brawling scandal, England’s Ashes squad announcement has played second fiddle in the public interest despite several curious and underwhelming choices from the selectors.

 
The inclusion of Hampshire batsman James Vince has raised the most eyebrows with the right-hander being recalled to the Test side in place of the jettisoned Tom Westley, despite averaging just 32.94 in this summer’s recently concluded County Championship. There’s also a return for Yorkshire batsman Gary Ballance and first Ashes call-ups for Surrey’s Ben Foakes, Hampshire’s Mason Crane and Craig Overton of Somerset.

 
Vince, who played seven Test matches against Sri Lanka and Pakistan last summer, now looks likely to become England’s new number three after Westley became the latest England batsman to be thrown on the scrapheap following a disappointing five-match spell in the side. Having tried and disregarded a host of options in recent years including the likes of Sam Robson, Adam Lyth, Keaton Jennings, Alex Hales, Haseeb Hameed, Ben Duckett, Jos Buttler and Nick Compton – the England hierarchy have simply found themselves nowhere left to turn other than to recall the previously overwhelmed pair of Ballance and Vince.

 
The return of Vince, despite no recent County form to speak of and an unpleasant Test record that reads: 7 Tests, 11 innings, 212 runs at 19.27 and a highest score of 42, is another instance of muddled thinking from James Whitaker and his fellow selectors. Vince, although a talented batsman with a dreamy cover drive, was shown to be heavily suspect outside his off stump during his brief Test exposure last summer. His willingness to chase at wide deliveries he should be leaving alone could come back to haunt the England hierarchy if, as expected, he is the man chosen to bat at number three come the first Test on November 23rd.

 
While Ballance enjoyed a fine start to the summer with Yorkshire – eventually finishing with 951 runs at 67.92 – he has struggled for runs since breaking his finger against South Africa in July. This latest opportunity represents the third time he has returned to the Test set-up after been dropped during the 2015 Ashes and again in Bangladesh last winter. Ballance, a tough and resilient character, will look upon the opportunity as “Third time lucky”, although the cynics might suggest it’s more a case of “Last chance saloon” as his Test career reaches a major crossroads after averaging just 19 in his previous 12 matches.

 
Like Vince, Ballance has shown technical vulnerabilities throughout his international career. Whereas the Hampshire-man’s downfall is his love for the drive, Ballance has refused to change a technique that sees him shuffle back into the crease rather than getting onto the front foot. Despite both men’s flaws, it’s difficult to imagine who the selectors could have possibly turned to instead.

 
Hameed has struggled to make runs for Lancashire after returning from a thumb injury at the beginning of the summer, likewise Jennings has failed to pass 20 in the twelve innings he’s played for Durham since his Test axing in August. Hales and Buttler don’t play enough first-class cricket to form any valuable consistency in the format and the likes of Compton (season average – 26.23) Duckett (42.05) Lyth (25.22) and Robson (39.25) just haven’t pulled up enough trees this summer.

 
In a way you simply have to feel sorry for the selectors. Who else REALLY can they pick? They just can’t find the correct batting formula to compliment Alastair Cook and Joe Root. Since Root debuted in late 2012 there’s been thirteen batting debutants with only Hameed and Root himself managing to average over 40. Perhaps further down the line youngsters such as Joe Clarke of Worcestershire and Essex’s Daniel Lawrence should be given an opportunity but an Ashes tour is no place to blood adolescents.

 

Mason Crane Getty
Mason Crane in action for New South Wales earlier this year. (Photo Credit: Getty Images).

 

Elsewhere, Somerset’s Craig Overton was included ahead of the unfit Mark Wood and injured Toby Roland-Jones. The call-up of Overton is England’s Ashes bolter and could well be an inspired one. Although he lacks the pace of his, currently injured, twin brother Jamie, Craig Overton is a fine cricketer who uses his tall frame to generate speed in the high 80’s as well being a more than capable batsman and sharp fielder. Many will suggest that he’s fortunate his brother is currently laid low, like Roland-Jones, with an early stage stress fracture of the back or he, instead, may have come under consideration. However, 46 County Championship wickets at 22.39 cannot be sniffed at and he’ll look to use the early tour matches as an opportunity to stake a claim alongside Jake Ball.

 
The decision to pick Mason Crane as the backup spinner is a risky one. It was certainly a decision based on two factors; Potential and recent exposure down under. Unquestionably, Crane has great potential as a young legspinner, however, he’s played second fiddle to the steady left-arm offerings of Liam Dawson at Hampshire this summer. Playing in just half of his side’s Championship fixtures, he’s mustered the unflattering returns of 16 wickets at 44.68. The big appeal for the selectors lies with his recent experience in Australian conditions after he spent winter playing Sydney Grade cricket with Gordon – a move that saw him rewarded with a Sheffield Shield debut for New South Wales.

 
Many have called it the weakest England squad to tour Australia in recent memory but with world-class batsmen in Cook and Root, a middle order packed with quality allrounders and the pace pair of James Anderson and Stuart Broad, it’s far too early to be calling 5-0 to the Aussies.

 
And yet, for England this could all pale into insignificance if Ben Stokes is an Ashes absentee.

 
Ashes squad: Alastair Cook, Mark Stoneman, James Vince, Gary Ballance, Joe Root ©, Dawid Malan, Ben Stokes, Jonny Bairstow, Ben Foakes, Moeen Ali, Chris Woakes, James Anderson, Stuart Broad, Jake Ball, Craig Overton, Mason Crane.

 

Can Mitchell Marsh emulate the successes of Ben Stokes?

While both hard-hitting allrounders are of a similar age – Stokes’ international career has taken off spectacularly in recent times. Marsh meanwhile remains, for now, a project player.

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Mitchell Marsh celebrates his maiden international hundred against India last month.

Mitchell Marsh will struggle to remember a better day than Saturday 6th February 2016. It began with news of a gigantic cheque arriving from the IPL, involved a tidy bowling spell of 2-30, and concluded with an unbeaten series-levelling knock of 69.

Whilst Marsh watched on at the non-strikers end as big John Hastings hit the winning runs in Wellington, I instead found myself 5,258 kms away observing another game of cricket. A far simpler encounter between two WACA: 1st Grade sides at the picturesque Stevens Reserve ground in South Fremantle, Western Australia.

The first day skirmish between Fremantle District CC and Perth CC, played under the unrelenting WA sun, seemed a world away from the Chappell-Hadlee duel at the ‘Cake Tin’, even if it did include a pair of highly impressive youngsters in Tom Abell and Jhye Richardson.

So what’s the link you may ask?

Well, Fremantle is where it had all began for the Perth-born Marsh. The international recognition and IPL paycheque (Marsh was bought by new franchise Pune Rising Supergiants in Saturday’s auction IPL for INR 4 crores – around $1 million AUD) are both just rewards for an upbringing that began, like many Australian cricketers before him, in Grade cricket.

While a busy international schedule has contrived to restrict Marsh to just two Grade appearances for Freo this summer (the last of which was in early December) and accumulated in him contributing just eight runs, he remains a player still highly regarded among his contemporaries at the club.

After making his First Grade bow in 2006/07, Marsh lived up to his enormous potential two summers later when, as a 17-year-old, he made 208 from 171-deliveries when batting at number five against Gosnells. A week later he became the youngest Australian to play in the country’s domestic one-day competition, debuting for Western Australia against South Australia at Bunbury.

Such lofty heights were followed with more success in the U19’s – where he captained the side to World Cup success in New Zealand in 2010. Among his compatriots in that side were current limited-overs teammates Josh Hazlewood, Kane Richardson and Adam Zampa.

Whilst Marsh was ascending through the ranks in Australian cricket, at the other end of the planet Ashes rivals England were unearthing a promising allrounder of their own.

Like Marsh, Ben Stokes also played in the 2010 U19 World Cup – impressing with a century against India in the process. The similarities run much deeper than that too. Both men were initially introduced into the international game via the limited overs route, with Stokes’ ODI debut preceding that of Marsh’s by just two months in August 2011.

They also both made their Test bows in trying circumstances. Stokes in the Ashes whitewash of 2013/14 and Marsh a year later as Australia were demolished 2-0 by Pakistan in the UAE.

While they share several comparisons, what currently sets them apart is the impact that Stokes has already had in Test cricket. With 23 Tests to his name, the Englishman has contributed three centuries (including a double), Marsh, on the other hand has just one fifty across his 13 matches – an 87 in his second Test at Abu Dhabi.

Up until securing his maiden century in his 44th international appearance (an unbeaten 102 off 84 deliveries against India at the SCG), Marsh had encountered a difficult summer with the bat.

Unable to pass fifty before that joyous occasion at the SCG, he spent most of the summer in the dressing room nursing pad-rash after the top five all scored a glut of runs in series against New Zealand and the West Indies. His 88 runs across five Tests owed as much to a lack of opportunity than to any particularly poor form.

Even so he’s spent the summer keeping the wolves at bay as both the tabloids and social media alike took turns to jump on his back – something which Shane Watson had himself once become accustomed to.

So desperate to get his premier allrounder some time in the middle, captain Steve Smith contrived to promote Marsh up the order in both the rain affected new year Test in Sydney and the fourth ODI against India in Canberra.

Twice promoted to bat at number three, he endured relatively subdued knocks of 21 off 63 (against the West Indies) and a 42-ball 33 (against India), stalling the earlier progress of the openers on both occasions. Only later in the ODI series did Smith’s plan come to fruition when Marsh ended his four-year wait for an international ton.

Were it not for his bowling – once seen as his weaker suit – he could well have found himself out of the side. After initial doubts over his ability to hold up an end, his bowling has come on leaps and bounds in both control and pace. This has allowed Smith to use both Mitchell’s (Johnson and Starc), along with James Pattinson, to attack in short bursts.

With both Johnson and Starc absent for the duration of the West Indies series, Marsh eventually found himself as the side’s enforcer. Regularly clocking up speeds in excess of 140kph during the Boxing Day Test at the MCG, he finished the match with career-best figures of 4-61.

After initially taking four matches and seven innings to take his first Test wicket, Marsh’s record of 21 wickets at 31.61 are a solid return for essentially a fourth seamer. That 12 of those wickets have come in his six matches this summer shows of the hard work he’s put in with bowling coach Craig McDermott.

Marsh’s upturn in fortunes have occurred at a time when Stokes is rightfully being showered in appraisals. Coming off the back of a breakthrough series in South Africa, Stokes’ stock has never been higher. Australians across the land must be left wondering if their own 24-year-old allrounder can develop into such an attacking match winner.

The Man-of-the-series performance against the formerly number-one ranked South African’s bookended a year in which Stokes has played an enterprising part in a new beginning for English cricket.

He finished the series second to only Hashim Amla on the run scoring charts with 411 runs at 58.71 and fourth on the wickets tally with 12 victims at 29.16. His thunderous innings of 258 at Cape Town was brutality and insouciance at its very best.

Despite Stokes taking a little while to find his feet at the international level (he made three successive ducks against India in his second series in 2014) his Test performances in the past year have been highly impressive. Sitting alongside the Cape Town 258 are the 92 & 101 he made against New Zealand at Lords and the second innings 6-36 against Australia at Trent Bridge – both in the past twelve months.

On the surface combined Test batting (33.73) and bowling (38.07) averages hardly suggest a pathway to greatness for Stokes. But similar to both Ian Botham and Andrew Flintoff before him, it’s his ability to stand up and be counted that marks the redhead out as a dangerous customer in all forms of the game.

His inclusion adds much needed balance to an England side, not only ensuring Alastair Cook can play five bowlers, but also allowing Moeen Ali (a man with 14 first-class hundreds to his name) to bat at number eight. Rod Marsh and his selection committee will hope Marsh can soon fulfil a similar role for Australia.

While Marsh has a poor batting average of 24.64 throughout the 21 times he’s walked to the middle in Test cricket, it must be noted that at times, he’s been asked to perform a selfless act when batting with a declaration looming.

Despite his often infuriating ability to throw his wicket away when well set, Australia must resist the urge to drop Marsh down to number seven and bat keeper Peter Nevill ahead of him. Such theories were muted at the conclusion of November’s day/night Test in Adelaide – where Nevill scored an accomplished first-innings 66 in trying conditions. Thankfully for Marsh’s development those ideas were soon quickly forgotten.

After started out as a number six, Stokes was briefly shifted down to number seven during England’s tour of the Caribbean last spring. The move, aided by a strong desire to promote Moeen up the order, only truly resulted in Stokes adopting a reckless attitude to batting.

“If you pick someone to bat in a certain place they’ll bat that way” – words of former Durham teammate Stephen Harmison on describing Stokes’ demotion in the order last year.

Fortunately for Stokes’ development as a batsman, the dismissal of coach Peter Moores – following that disastrous series in the West Indies – abetted his return up the order. The decision to reinstate him at six – made by then interim-coach Paul Farbrace – has since being vindicated with the Left-hander excelling under on the added responsibility.

For Marsh the forthcoming two-Test series in New Zealand looms as a potentially defining one. With the ball expected to swing and seam as it did in England last winter, Trent Boult and co are sure to demand a thorough test of his defensive technique. A technique previously found wanting in such conditions.

With the ball, he also has a huge role to play for skipper Smith. With Starc still out injured and doubts over the short term fitness of both Pattinson and Peter Siddle, expect Marsh to bowl his fair share of tough overs.
There’s certainly a lot to admire about both Stokes and Marsh. In an era when allrounders in Test cricket are often portrayed as something that closely resembles gold dust, having one equipped to bat in a positive manner at number six, whilst also being able to bowl 140kph-plus as a fourth-change seamer, is invaluable.

Could next year’s Ashes campaign be a battle of the allrounders?