Mark Footitt must wonder how many chances he will have for a Test debut © Getty Images
Had a stranger wandered into England’s net session in Centurion on Wednesday, they could have been forgiven for concluding that Mark Footitt was the outstanding bowler in the squad.
Footitt, bowling with pace and skill, made life torrid for all the batsmen. Jonny Bairstow, arguably England’s man of the series, was twice drawn into edges, while James Taylor was beaten like a snare drum. The rest of the bowlers, despite habitually overstepping – a habit that might be best stamped out, even in such sessions – were unable to match his hostility.
But you have to be careful with training sessions. While the more established bowlers know not to expend their energy two days before a game, those on the periphery know that is a rare chance to impress. And Footitt knows that, with Steven Finn unavailable due to injury, he is rivalling Chris Jordan and Chris Woakes for a call up. He must fear that the Test in Pretoria might offer a last chance for him.
Footitt is a fine bowler. Since the start of the 2014 season, he has claimed 162 first-class wickets at an average of 21.46. While the vast majority of those have been taken in Division Two of the County Championship, where the standards of batting and pitches is not the highest, they are still impressive figures.
With his left-arm pace, his new-found control and an ability, at his best, to shape the ball back into the right hander, he has developed into a dangerous, consistent bowler. Graeme Welch, the Derbyshire coach who had notable success with Keith Barker, Chris Wright and Rikki Clarke while bowling coach at Warwickshire, deserves some of the credit.
Footitt was a little wayward in the warm-up matches. But some nerves were understandable and he has now had a couple of months in which to settle into the England environment. Moeen Ali would doubtless appreciate the footmarks he would cultivate if he played, too, while the variety would give the attack a fresh look.
But Footitt is 30 years old and has recently moved from Derbyshire to Surrey. He will find the pay outstanding at The Oval but the pitches heartbreaking. Just ask Stuart Meaker or Chris Tremlett. With younger men – the Currans, the Overtons, David Willey, Reece Topley et al – breaking through and a winter in Asia beckoning at the end of 2016, it is hard to see where future opportunities may lie.
England’s recent history would suggest that Woakes is the likely beneficiary of Finn’s injury. Quite rightly, he is highly thought of within the management team and bowled well without reward in Durban. He is the more likely to retain control – his career economy-rate is 3.05 compared to Footitt’s 3.50 – and his first-class record – 358 wickets at an average of 25.42 – has generally been earned in Division One of the County Championship. He has the ability to move the ball both ways in the right conditions and is a good enough batsman to have made eight first-class centuries: he made his Test debut at No. 6.
The management of this team is relatively new, however, and may not judge “bowling dry” quite as importantly as previous regimes. And with Moeen Ali at No. 8, the batting of the third seamer should not be a priority.
To the naked eye, Footitt looks the quicker bowler. But perhaps that is just due to the tangle of arms and legs you see just before he delivers. Hawkeye would suggest that Woakes, measured as the fastest bowler on either side during the Durban Test, is every bit as quick.
But batsmen do tend to say that Woakes, with his smooth, straight action, is easier to pick-up than some, even if he has started to hide the ball in his run-up in the manner of James Anderson or, before him Zaheer Khan. He seems relatively unloved on social media but very highly rated by his fellow professionals.
Chris Woakes bowled well without luck in Durban © Getty Images
You could make an argument that Footitt is a more convincing like-for-like replacement for Finn. It is true that both are aggressive bowlers who are liable to concede a few more runs than the dependable Woakes, who might be seen as a more like-for-like replacement for Anderson. But Woakes, effectively the man in possession after playing in Durban, is the one seen as having a future at this level. It would be a surprise if he did not play.
There is another option, but it is an unlikely one. England could leave out James Anderson – not ‘drop,’ just leave out in the knowledge that the series is won and they need to keep an eye on the future – and play both Woakes and Footitt. Given Anderson’s workload following this game, however – he will not bowl again in anger until April at least – and his admirable desire to represent England on every possible occasion, it seems almost unthinkable that he will be asked to sit this one out.
One man that Footitt did not beat in the nets was Nick Compton. Compton admitted that he had been perturbed enough by Trevor Bayliss’ comments following the first Test – comments which suggested that he would, in an ideal world, prefer a more free-scoring batsman at No. 3 than Compton – to seek clarification from his coach. Upon reflection, and after a couple of odd innings, it seems Compton will be content to revert to the sheet anchor role.
“I had a chat with Trevor about it, but there was no inference that was the way he wanted me to play,” Compton said. “He just wanted to make it clear that’s in an ideal world. But I’ve been selected for the reasons that I do what I do and he’s been very clear about me doing that role as well as I can.
“It would nice to whack it like David Warner or de Villiers. Wouldn’t we all like to do things differently and better? But having done a bit of that as a youngster and tried different things, I’m settled on what I do.
“There’s probably been times when I’ve been frustrated at how I’ve got out, I have perhaps got just a little bit ahead of myself and chased one too many balls.
“I’m proud of what I do and I feel strongly that I have qualities and attributes that yes, might not be as glamorous as others at this time and place in life, but still have a big part to play. We know big hundreds and batting for long periods of time is what’s important in Test match cricket.
“We know the new ball is a tough place to bat but, if I can get in and stay in, then I’m doing a good job for the guys. From a personal position, hopefully you get in and you cash in.”
Compton, at least, is all but certain to win another chance to show what he can contribute at this level. It is an opportunity Mark Footitt might never have.
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo
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Source: ESPN Crickinfo