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Alan Gardner: Retention of Ambrose shows selectoral weakness

October 3rd, 2008 by Alan Gardner in County cricket, England and tagged , , , ,

When England’s touring party to India was announced earlier this week, the omission of Essex’s wicketkeeper James Foster came as little surprise. If you were expecting to see Foster make the squad, then perhaps you already had Darren Pattinson nailed on for one of the fast bowling slots. However, by overlooking Foster in favour of a recalled Matt Prior and this summer’s incumbent Tim Ambrose, the England selectors appear to have stuck with continuity to a fault.

Perhaps this was to be expected. When England set a world record by naming an unchanged side for the sixth time on the spin for the first Test against South Africa in July, national selector Geoff Miller lauded the “consistency in selection and consistency in performance” that had seen the team win four of their preceding five Tests – albeit against a weak New Zealand. Then came Pattinson’s inclusion at Headingley and the ensuing opprobrium. Miller and his men learned the hard way just why ‘change management’ has its own Wikipedia entry.

Returning to the wicketkeeping question, the selectors have shown generous largesse in retaining Ambrose, despite his apparent decoding at international level. A clear weakness to pitched-up deliveries on or around off stump – no longer will the back-foot cut be fed – resulted in the steady decline of his batting average. An increased focus on his performance elicited further errors from behind the stumps, and numerous dropped catches pock-marked the South Africa Tests. Prior’s semi-triumphant return (including six dismissals in the second ODI against the Proteas, and 14 in the series) ensured that the Sussex man will be in possession of the gauntlet come India – but why the dogged persistence with Ambrose?

His county form for Division Two champions Warwickshire has been a curate’s egg. In four games subsequent to returning from international duty, as the Bears sought to seal promotion, Ambrose produced innings of 5, 11, 0, 6*, 86 and 1; while a run-a-ball 111 in a dead rubber Pro40 fixture was preceded by scores of 4 and 15. As New Zealand discovered in Wellington, if Ambrose is allowed to get away, he will. But rarely has he done so this season, even against county attacks.

As England have prevaricated in their ’keeping requirements, Essex’s Foster has gone about his business in the shade. Described recently as the best wicketkeeper in the world by Jack Russell, Foster’s glovework, honed standing up to the wicket to Essex’s battery of medium pacers, has become as wily as it is reliable. Ninety-five dismissals in all forms of cricket over the course of the season puts him second only to, interestingly, Geraint Jones, while his ability was showcased by two adroit stumpings on Twenty20 finals day.

With the bat, Foster’s first-class career average is 35.34 – lower than Prior’s (39.39) but slightly higher than Ambrose’s (34.18) – and he has two double centuries to his name. Since he was last capped by England (for it was Foster who was anointed Alec Stewart’s heir apparent as long ago as 2001), he has scored 11 of his 12 first-class hundreds, and this year he averaged 46.25, with three centuries (two unbeaten) and two half-centuries in his last 10 innings. Foster is the form man – although the concession that his runs are scored in domestic cricket’s second tier must be made. Essex coach Paul Grayson has bemoaned selectoral bias; but the lack of a truly eye-catching performance, such as in the Friends Provident trophy final, where Foster made a scratchy 18, may also be partly to blame. Then again, perhaps Miller and Moores are simply covering their backs.

If so, then it sets a worrying precedent. Ambrose is one of seven players possessing an ‘increment contract’, and his inclusion on the India tour seems almost like justification in the face of performance for being picked as first-choice over the summer. If Prior stutters again with the gloves, will Ambrose, with his much-discussed frailties, hop back on the merry-go-round? And what now for Foster, overlooked even for the development squad in favour of Worcestershire’s Steven Davies?

This was an ideal opportunity for England to bring Foster back into the national set-up, for his wicketkeeping alone, and the selectors may yet regret not taking it.

Alan Gardner is a freelance journalist with

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RMJ: Bowlers make the difference in longer form

October 3rd, 2008 by Robin Martin-Jenkins in County cricket and tagged , , , , , ,

The 2008 domestic season will not go down in history as a great vintage. The weather put paid to that. That is not just sour grapes because Sussex didn’t win the Championship again but, if you’ll allow me just one more Oenophilic pun, I like my wine to taste a bit stronger; it seemed like a watered-down year. Indeed I can’t recall one Championship match that wasn’t rain (or bad-light) affected for us, and we had five one-day matches abandoned.

But it was still a year with plenty of highlights. Personally it was great to play in a team that won a trophy despite struggling all season. The Pro40 First Division win made that final September pay cheque read slightly better, despite Alistair Darling taking nearly half of the bonus. (Why should I give it to him? I bet he can’t bat or bowl. Not with those eyebrows.)

We struggled mainly because we lost our match-winner of the past few years, Mushtaq Ahmed, to retirement (although the smart money is on a Lazarus-like return to play in the ICL!). It has proven to me beyond all doubt that bowlers are more important than batsmen in a four-day team, as it is the bowlers who win you matches and Championships. Who had the best bowling attack we faced this year? Durham, without question.

To see Steve Harmison steaming down the hill at Hove in June, frightening the quantum solace out of our batsmen, was a heart-warming sight for fans of English cricket, as much as it was a trouser-warming sight for us. His resurgence bodes well for both Kevin Pietersen and Peter Moores as they try and establish the correct line-up to take on Australia next summer. An in-form Steve Harmison is as important to English cricket as Wayne Rooney is to English football. At least there is no question mark over which position Harmison will play in – give him the new ball KP and tell him to charge in!

Murray Goodwin’s heroic innings to wrestle the Pro40 trophy from the hands of Chris Read’s Nottinghamshire has proven two things to me: firstly that he should have played 100 Test matches (it is regrettable that so much talent has been lost to the international game because of politics – Alistair Darling, take note … ) and secondly that contrary to my theories about four-day match-winners it is the batsmen who win one-day matches. In this regard, Murray has been as important to us as Mushy, and deserves to go down in history as one of Sussex’s greatest ever players.

2008 is Robin Martin-Jenkins’ benefit year, visit for further details.

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