You might think, after my tirade against England’s under-performing batsmen on the third afternoon of the last Test, that I would be basking in the resignation of captain Michael Vaughan, and lauding our powers-that-be for having the foresight to signal a serious change in outlook.
Of course, I won’t be. Not only has Vaughan been one of my favourite batsmen of the last ten years – if only he could play more of those back-foot drives of the type he essayed in his brief cameo in the second innings without finding an edge or missing a straight one inbetween, we would not be in this position – he has been incredibly unlucky with injury, which must surely have had some bearing on his inability to run up big scores on a regular basis.
Vaughan’s form was a concern but I do not think that he was the big problem: something was wrong in the set-up as a whole, perhaps mainly a stubborn belief that talent – that of Ian Bell, that of Andrew Strauss, that of Paul Collingwood – will out in the end. This, though, is not always so, as the international experiences of Graeme Hick and Mark Ramprakash testify.
No one would pretend that Graeme Smith, the South Africa captain, is a joy to watch, but he is gritty, astonishingly determined and seems to have a bat as wide as a railway sleeper; you just do not see him feathering the kind of airy edges that Strauss, Bell and even KP do from time to time. Maybe it is time to put some of our aesthetic desires aside.
I read today in one national journalist’s blog that Vaughan had lost the dressing-room, that, among other things, some of his field changes were causing players to wander about shrugging their shoulders. Well, I’m not sure I buy that. How could he have lost the dressing-room when the parallel complaint was that the nucleus of players had formed a clique of comfort into which it was becoming more and more difficult to break?
In his own words, it seems, he had simply run out of steam. And good on him for admitting it. Maybe he learnt his lesson from his tenure as one-day captain, a seat from which he had almost to be crow-barred.
You might also think that I would be shouting from the rooftops after naming KP as my preferred captain for the Oval Test. (Those in the know are saying that he will be the new ‘unity’ skipper across the five-day and one-day arena) Well, not so, either. I took the easy option after looking at the alternatives – the only realistic one was Strauss and he wouldn’t make my team anyway for the time being.
I still have great reservations about Pietersen, a feeling that is shared, perhaps surprisingly, by a goodly number of England supporters if the contributions to a myriad of blogs today is to be believed. No one is really taken in by Pietersen’s protestations to be a team man; if anyone was in any doubt, his shot on Friday afternoon would have disabused them of that.
But now is his chance to show us that he can sublimate his selfish inclinations into the demands of the team. Naming him captain for one Test and the one-day contests that follow should give us some idea whether he is the one for the future.
To name Strauss in that team would be a cruelty since he has gone on record to say how much he valued the leadership of the country and to be overlooked as he was when Flintoff got the job for the 2006-7 Ashes might do him terminal harm.
Best if he is allowed to go back to county cricket and notch up some runs, with the proviso that if he shows sufficiently good form and Pietersen proves unable to galvanise his charges, he’ll be the next in line.
My fit of pique on Friday was, of course, written before Collingwood proved his mettle with a superb hundred, sadly, like his double-century effort in Adelaide, in a losing cause.
It would be easy to say that he has saved his Test career, deserves another chance and should be kept in the frame for the Oval. But, looked at another way, saving your career when you’re in the last chance saloon, could be seen as an act of desperation, not quality.
Strauss did the same in the third Test in New Zealand in the winter, and, while he scored another decisive hundred to guide England to victory against New Zealand at Old Trafford, he has not scored even so much as a fifty in five attempts against the greater challenge of South Africa.
Nothing that he or Collingwood could do against the same opponents in south London in a dead series will tell us anything new.
It is time to look at the alternatives, which takes me back to the team I named on Friday. I think it stands, although since no one has agreed with me that Stuart Broad can make a Test No 6 (you mark my words, his Test career will eventually be judged on his batting, as was that of Bob Woolmer, who started out mainly as a bowler) I suggest that Rob Key is given another chance or we stick, rather reluctantly, with Alastair Cook.
2 Malan (or Key or Cook)
6 Key (or Malan)
Next in line: Steve Kirby