England announced their 17-man squad to tour Australia for the return Ashes starting November 20. While the headlines were dominated by the return of troubled left-arm spinner Monty Panesar into the fold, Jaideep Vaidya looks at the opportunities given to inexperienced players such as Gary Ballance and Boyd Rankin to impress.
England’s squad for the Ashes 2013-14 included the usual suspects, expected new inclusions and some surprising exclusions. While 10 of the 17 members of the announced squad were also part of England’s home Ashes party, there were some expected new arrivals such as middle-order batsman Gary Ballance, pacer Boyd Rankin and all-rounder Ben Stokes, along with some unexpected ones such as Michael Carberry and Chris Tremlett. Monty Panesar, expected to have left his troubles aside, was given a shot in the arm by an inclusion as Graeme Swann’s deputy, while exclusions such as Graham Onions and Nick Compton raised a few eyebrows.
If England’s squad is analysed, nine of the 17 members select themselves and walk into the team for any match. These include: Alastair Cook, James Anderson, Ian Bell, Stuart Broad, Kevin Pietersen, Matt Prior, Joe Root, Graeme Swann and Jonathan Trott. This leaves two spots up for grabs — the No 6 batsman and the third fast bowler. Looking at the remaining options in the squad, two names stand out as the first choice for the said positions: Gary Ballance and Boyd Rankin.
The No 6 position in the batting line-up as been England’s tripping stone for quite a while now. Jonny Bairstow, who occupied the position for the first four of the five summer Ashes Tests, could only manage 203 runs in seven innings at 29.00. Although Bairstow has somehow managed to keep his place in the squad, probably due to his credentials as a reserve wicketkeeper to Matt Prior, one wouldn’t be surprised if his name isn’t on the team sheet on November 21 at Brisbane.
So, why Ballance?
Well, for one, he provides a second left-hand option in the top six after the skipper Cook. While that may seem unfair on Compton, the Zimbabwe-born Ballance justifies his inclusion in the starting eleven on the grounds of the terrific season that he has had for Yorkshire, where he scored 1,107 First-Class runs at 55.35. He also performed consistently for the England Lions in the last year, scoring a classy century against Australia in the build-up to the 2013 Ashes. This has perhaps persuaded the selectors to pick him ahead of the likes of Compton and James Taylor.
Ballance, 23, is a left-hander who boasts of a wide array of shots in his armory. Former England captain Michael Vaughan has backed the decision to pick him, writing in the Telegraph: “The spare batsman is a tricky selection but I would go for Gary Ballance. I have seen enough of him to know he can play in Australia because he has a good back-foot game. He has a calm nature and stands out on his own in the way he wins games for Yorkshire in all forms of the game.”
If he has a weakness, it is against the short ball, which could be exposed on the seaming pitches. But he has provided plenty other reasons to test him out at the position, perhaps starting with the tour games ahead of the series, against Western Australia, New South Wales and Australia A.
Coming to Rankin, 29, the second player in the English squad with roots outside the country, the tall Irish-born fast bowler impressed in England’s One-Day International (ODI) series loss to Australia, taking five wickets in three games. He troubled the Australian batsmen, especially Michael Clarke, with his hit-the-deck bowling delivered from a towering height. A tall, strapping lad of 6’7″, Rankin would be relishing the opportunity to bowl on Australia’s seamer-friendly pitches.
Former Ireland teammate William Porterfield recently told the Guardian: ”Boyd has always been massive, and there aren’t many blokes who are six foot eight and can bowl late 80s [mph]. He’s always had the ability, he showed that with Ireland — every time he came up against world-class batsmen he would rise to the challenge, and I think that’s stood him in good stead for what’s happened with England in the last couple of weeks. We’ve played India in India, Bangladesh in Bangladesh, in front of big crowds and hostile atmospheres, so I don’t think playing Australia in Australia will be a problem for him either. The big difference these last two years is that he’s got a hell of a lot stronger. He’s 29 now as well, at a stage where he knows where he’s at. So he’s been consistently quick and consistently threatening every spell he bowls.”
Rankin gets the ball to come into the right-hander and coupled with his height he could prove to be a potent weapon for Alastair Cook in Australia. He looks to be the best choice for the third seamer spot behind Anderson and Broad, and is a similar bowler to Chris Tremlett, who bowled so well during England’s last trip Down Under. He also provides a cover with his handy batting abilities, making him an able No 8 or 9.
The selectors have put their faith in inexperienced lads for what would be a difficult trip Down Under. If the potential debutants do get a chance to don the white flannels, it would be a valuable opportunity for them to grow and prove their credentials.
(Jaideep Vaidya is a correspondent at CricketCountry. A diehard Manchester United fan and sports buff, you can follow him on Twitter and Facebook)