Slow but steady wins the race

Neither of the last two Tests has provided the kind of intrigue or tension to really kick-start this summer’s cricket. At least, such as it may be called summer when hail stops play. While the crowds may rue the decline of a once great Test nation, however, the England selectors have some cause to smile.

Kevin Pietersen may have sneaked the Man-of-the-Match award with his maiden international double hundred, but Headingley was Ryan Sidebottom’s Test. After the Durham pair of Plunkett and Harmison had comprehensively failed to look threatening at Lord’s, or even manage to find both line and length with any frequency, the prospect of a return for the equally unpredictable Anderson or Mahmood was not one of eager anticipation. Sidebottom’s selection, whilst somewhat left-field and seen by some as a backwards step, certainly served purpose. His experience and discipline was priceless to an attack whose two frontline ‘strike men’ seemed as unsure as the opposition batsmen as to where each of their deliveries was going to pitch. Michael Vaughan possibly summed it up the Aesopian predicament most accurately:

“If you’ve got someone bowling 90mph in the right area, it’s fantastic, but pace bowled on either side of the wicket is something that’s quite nice to face.”

Sidebottom, like Prior, had not had the most successful start to the cricketing calendar. Handed his second Test cap, he took his best haul in all competitions this season in the first innings, with his second innings figures costing a mere two runs extra. Prior’s two first-innings outings have both been far in excess of any of his scores for Sussex this year. Is Moores simply blessed with good fortune in his early selections, or does he have Fletcher’s Midas touch for the international performer? It is surely too soon to tell; but for the moment it seems likely that Nottinghamshire will have to wait a little longer to regain their curly-haired left-arm seamer.

Not all of the selection decisions have paid off. While Graveney et al cannot take blame for Harmison’s curious lack of consistency, Plunkett’s rather robotic action accounts for much of the troubles that went unhidden by his flattering figures at Headingley. Sidebottom has just highlighted the quality that can be found and developed in the county system that Duncan Fletcher had come to distrust. Unless Donald is able to make a swift and significant impact, a return to Durham for the young man may be the best way to improve his game.

Pass the gloves, please

Wicket keepers and national selection have been much on my mind when watching the last few games of county cricket. Yes, one of the batsmen is going to have to drop out for Vaughan, and there are a fair few bowlers queuing for a run up the Lord’s slope two weeks from now. Yet both these battles are limited: no one expects the April top scorer to encroach upon a direct battle between Cook, Bell and Collingwood; Harmison and Hoggard have performed too well to expect other non-tourers to feature. The war of the wicketkeepers, however, just keeps hotting up.

Of course, a couple of weeks ago, Nixon and Prior were announced in the ‘Performance’ squad. Anyone who thought that Moores woudn’t opt for Prior had obviously missed the barrage of articles on Moores’ coaching history. However, the Sussex gloveman has made only 158 runs in seven completed innings. Nixon hasn’t yet had opportunity to bat in a first class game. Despite the Times making several mentions of Hampshire ‘keeper Nic Pothas’ England qualification in the early season, the player who has made the most waves in the last couple of weeks is Prior’s former competitor for the Sussex gloves, Tim Ambrose.

Now I’m never one to gloat, but it seems that, for once, I said something first. Of course, as a rather rampant Warwickshire fan, I might be accused of bias, but the numbers are rather impressive. In four innings, he has only once failed to make more than fifty, with the latest contribution a massive 251*, with a strike rate edging towards 80. This was the highest championship score by a wicketkeeper in a decade. In two fifty-over Friends Provident fixtures he has made 166 without losing his wicket. If he can maintain this kind of form, surely he must edge himself forward for international consideration.

Young hopeful Steven Davies has had a match to forget at New Road so far, with a couple of juggled stumpings on a track that the batsmen have had to be prised off. Geraint Jones has shown a little bit of his fine form of Cricket Past, with a flourishing 49. Then no ‘keeping summary would be complete without a nod to Chris Read, who took five catches in Glamorgan’s first innings and made a helpful 34. It may be an open contest – but is it open enough for any of these county tradesmen to overcome the Development Squad hurdle? Will Nixon be rewarded with a Test cap? Or will Moores’ long-standing affiliation with Prior win through? In a fortnight’s time, we might at least have more of an idea.