Andrew Strauss and his fellow batsmen will no doubt relish the prospect of taking guard in familiar surroundings even if the pitch is likely to have more than the usual tinge of green – even for this time of year – given that the rainfall over the last few weeks has probably not been equalled since Noah first raised the anchor on the Ark.
Aside from a decision between Steven Finn and Tim Bresnan, the only real point of debate selection-wise will centre on who will bat at No.6. Let’s assess the possible runners and riders:
The man in possession is Nottinghamshire’s Samit Patel who played both Tests in Sri Lanka without exactly setting the house alight with either bat or ball. He wasn’t even trusted enough to bat at No.6 – he slotted in at seven behind Matt Prior – and a top score of 29 suggests the selectors’ hesitancy was well placed. Has batted at No.4 for Notts in the County Championship since his return from Sri Lanka, but has only passed 50 once in eight attempts.
2012 Championship record: 174 runs at 24.85
Verdict: Is neither fish nor fowl – even his own county coach has publicly doubted Patel’s credentials as a specialist Test batsman.
Patel replaced Eoin Morgan after England’s adopted Irishman endured a nightmare series against Pakistan in the UAE, which left his average from 16 Tests at a distinctly unimpressive 30.43. He could have made a case for a recall by scoring runs for Middlesex in Division One, but prioritised a stint in the IPL instead, where he has warmed the bench for Pune without making a single appearance.
2012 Championship record: Weather permitting, will have just the one opportunity to shine for Middlesex at Trent Bridge this week.
Verdict: He left it late last year by stepping off a plane from India and cracking a big hundred in the Lions game against Sri Lanka, but with his credit in the bank now expired, has surely left it too late this time.
James Taylor will lead the Lions against West Indies this week, has a first-class average touching 50 and this writer at least was hugely impressed with his technique and guts against a fearsome Surrey attack on an Oval green top last summer. Has started quietly at Trent Bridge since his move from Leicestershire over the winter, where he is notably batting below Patel in the order.
2012 Championship record: 225 runs at 28.12
Verdict: Doesn’t have form on his side nor perhaps the fluency required to bat at six at Test level. His chance will come again.
The carrot-headed Jonathan Bairstow seems to have overtaken Taylor as the next bright young thing and has already shown that international cricket holds no fears for him. That said, if the selectors are thinking ahead to the winter they will note his struggles against spin in the one-day series in India last autumn. Is in form, has a career average of 46 and perhaps more importantly a healthy strike rate which would make him an asset at No.6.
2012 Championship record: 357 runs at 59.50 (two hundreds)
Verdict: If the selectors are unsure whether to trust Bopara, Bairstow would seem to be next in line.
Nick Compton has been scoring runs for fun whilst pretty much every other top order batsman has been struggling with the early-season bowler-friendly conditions. He is well on target to become the first batsman since Graeme Hick to score 1,000 first-class runs by the end of May. Has been called up to the Lions and if those famous family genes can rub off some more…
2012 Championship record: 479 runs at 119.75
Verdict: Will need to sustain his early-season form for the whole summer and in any case – like Taylor – looks more of a top four batsman rather than a No.6.
If Compton isn’t enough of an outsider, how about Surrey captain Rory Hamilton-Brown? Hugely talented and a formidably quick scorer, RHB has struck fifties in each of Surrey’s first three Division One games – all on devilish pitches. Much ire (most of it sadly inverse snobbery) was spent when he was handed the Surrey captaincy as an utter novice, but he has swum not sunk and looks to have plenty of character to match his undoubted talent.
2012 Championship record: 284 runs at 47.33
Verdict: The likes of Michael Vaughan and Marcus Trescothick had the character (if not the outstanding first-class record when first picked) to flourish at Test level – international cricket would hold no fear for Hamilton-Brown. One to watch.
Finally, there is the favourite Ravi Bopara, who spent most of the winter carrying the drinks – he does reputedly mix a fine G&T – whilst impressing with a pair of fifties in the one-day series against Pakistan. Has scored three Test hundreds (which is one more than Morgan and Shane Watson to name but two), but needs to shake off the black cat that seems to have been following him around for the last couple of years. He was the fall-guy in the 2009 Ashes after his limitations at No.3 were horribly exposed by the Australians, was pipped at the post by Morgan last year and would have played in the Tests against Sri Lanka but for an injury which prevented him from bowling. Has his time finally come again?
2012 Championship record: 138 runs at 46.00
Verdict: Looked a class apart when scoring 117 at Headingley a few weeks back, seems a natural No.6, bowls useful seam-up and surely deserves to be the next cab off the rank. But if he gets the opportunity, will he make the most of it?
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BIOGRAPHY: Mohamed Salah