Every virtue becomes a vice eventually. Just as a relaxed attitude can start to look like laziness over time, so a single-minded desire to succeed can, eventually, be interpreted as selfishness. A willingness to listen can be interpreted as a lack of conviction and, after a while, continuity can be perceived as a resistance to change.
Might we be in this territory now with the England team? The continuity of selection policy that has been at the heart of their tactics for the last decade and more remains welcome. Nobody wants a return to the bad old days of the 1980 and 90s when a good showing in an end-of-season final would routinely result in selection on a winter tour and players were never more than a couple of bad games from the axe. England used 29 players in the Ashes of 1989 and four captains in the summer of 1988. It encouraged selfishness and timidity.
But it has to be balanced with some flexibility. And the evidence of recent days is that, in some areas at least, this England set-up is becoming worryingly rigid.
Left to his own devices, it seems Ed Smith, would, even now, have included Joe Denly in the England Test squad. Despite copious evidence that Denly, for all his hard work and good intentions, was not quite up to it, Smith has fought for his inclusion in every squad in every format of the game. The national selector’s dedication to his former teammate is so uncompromising that it’s hard not to picture the moment he had to inform Denly of his dropping like the scene in Titanic where a teary Kate Winslet finally lets Leonardo DiCaprio slip into the watery depths. “The heart will go on, Joe. But obviously not on so far that it converts into a century.”
The debate over the inclusion of Denly has performed a service for England in some ways. It has, at least, taken a little of the attention that might otherwise have been focused on Jos Buttler‘s position. Buttler is 29 now and; having played 42 Tests, averages 31.46. Over the last 11 Tests, that average drops to 21.38. And while his keeping has developed to the point he is more than reliable behind the stumps – just look how easy he made that run-out at the end of the World Cup final appear – the fact is he did drop Jermaine Blackwood down the leg side at the Ageas Bowl in a moment that could have turned the game.
Lots of players have poor runs, of course. The argument for retention suggests they will come through such dips and, at some stage, normal service will be restored.
“We have tried to be consistent because we know how difficult it can be when you’re given limited opportunity,” Joe Root explained on Wednesday. “The mindset for the guys shouldn’t be about trying to get themselves into the team for the next game; it should be about doing what’s best for the team and playing the situation.
“We’re trying to create an environment where they can thrive. We don’t want them thinking: ‘if I don’t get a score in the first couple of games I’ll be out the team’. We want to take that pressure away from players. We want them to feel they have an opportunity to go out and play properly and do a job.”
All of which is perfectly sensible and admirable.
But is Buttler in a dip? The fact is, he averages 32.00 in first-class cricket. He has scored six centuries in 107 games and 174 innings. It’s not a small sample size. He’s dangerous, of course, and he could produce the occasional brilliant innings. But it’s maybe not reasonable to expect him to go up a level and perform better than he does domestically.
Besides, there’s another side to giving the incumbent a fair chance: not giving the person outside the team anything of the sort. And in Ben Foakes, England have a top-class keeper who scored a century on Test debut and was player of the series in the one complete Test series in which he appeared. He averages 38.01 with the bat in his first-class career and was dropped not so much through any fault of his own, but to accommodate the selections of Buttler and Jonny Bairstow.
That’s the thing with continuity of selection: some seem to enjoy more continuity than others. Take Jake Ball, for example. For a couple of seasons, he looked the top seamer in the county game. He experienced great success by pitching the ball up and generating lateral movement; a classic English seamer, if you like. But he played only one Test in England and, after being asked to perform a role for which he was ill-suited – a bouncer-delivering enforcer – in Brisbane, was never seen again. Two of his other Tests came in Mumbai and Chennai.
So why is Buttler being given such an extended opportunity? Well, for one thing, he has shown in limited-overs cricket that he is an outrageous talent. He has also shown he is a fine team man and that he can flourish under pressure. There have been times, not least in Sri Lanka, when he looked every bit a Test-class batsman. But that’s a long time ago now. And Foakes, it might be remembered, enjoyed an even better series.
So might the real issue be that Buttler has been Smith’s signature selection? That Smith has pinned his reputation to the pick and made clear that he, individually, had insisted on Buttler’s recall? And, in trying to accommodate his ongoing inclusion, England have shunted Bairstow around to the point where he went from outstanding to out of the side? Might it simply be that England, and Smith in particular, are in so deep with Buttler that they fear for the damage to their reputations if they give up now?
Under Smith’s stewardship, Jason Roy was asked to open in Test cricket. Ollie Pope was taken to New Zealand as the reserve keeper. Pope, in his first spell in the side, was required to bat in a position with which he was unfamiliar. Smith inherited Anderson and Root and Broad and Stokes. He has done nothing to help Moeen Ali feel valued in the environment and discombobulated Bairstow.
He might feel he cannot afford Buttler to fail. And he might be right.
Source: ESPN Crickinfo