Fresh faces of changing order

Since 2002/03, injury, retirement, "burn out" or loss of form have taken a temporary or more permanent toll on an astonishing number of English players.

"The Old Order Changeth, Yielding place to New."

So wrote Tennyson — the poet laureate, Alfred Lord — not Lionel, the England cricket captain of the late 1920s. But no matter who the author, the comment could be applied to today's forever shifting selection scene in English cricket. The personnel at skipper Andrew Strauss' disposal has undergone almost a total make-over in the last year. When Nasser Hussain's XI lost the Ashes series to Australia in Australia in 2002/03, it contained only three players presently retaining their places in Andrew Strauss' team: a triumvirate of survivors who have outlasted no fewer than four skippers in the past 12 months.

In the longer term of four years, injury, retirement, "burn out" or loss of form have taken their temporary or more permanent toll on an astonishing number of "Pommie" players: Michael Vaughan, Robert Key, Mark Butcher, Alec Stewart, Graham Thorpe, Geraint Jones, Craig White, Richard Dawson, Ashley Giles, Simon Jones, Andrew Caddick, James Anderson, Marcus Trescothick and Andrew Flintoff — more than a complete team of talent. Contrast this playing depopulation to the stability of the Aussie side over the same period of time. Of the side who contested and won the Ashes for Steve Waugh in 2002/03, no fewer than nine of the modern day Aussie "Invincibles" remain in place: Ricky Ponting, Matthew Hayden, Justin Langer, Damien Martyn, Brett Lee, Jason Gillespie, Shane Warne, Stuart MacGill and Glenn McGrath. Moreover this catalogue of stars takes no account of the fringe players who, in other Test playing countries, would be automatic choices for their national teams: hardened internationals such as Andrew Symonds, Simon Katich, Michael Kasprowicz, and Brad Hogg.

The question which springs to mind when I contrast the stability of Ponting's World Beaters to the transient qualities of other Test teams is: "Why?" No fewer than seven fresh faces have appeared in the England side in the past couple of seasons: Andrew Strauss, Kevin Pietersen, Alastair Cook, Paul Collingwood, Ian Bell, Chris Read and Monty Panesar. The physical wear and tear experienced by players in the course of a long English domestic season and an even longer international programme has brought up the names of other "possibles" — Sajid Mahmood, Chris Tremlett, Liam Plunkett and Jamie Dalrymple — and is often put forward as a reason for the need for the constant replenishment of its supply of Test players. But this seems to be a specious excuse when put in the context of Alec Bedser's comments to me in a recent letter: he stated that England's fast bowler Steve Harmison bowled only 30 overs between February and July 2006! Hardly overworked!

It is, however, undeniable that the 2006 international programme of the England side was tiring and onerous, encompassing three away and four home Tests against Pakistan plus five home and five away one-day internationals. These were followed by three full-length matches against India in India, interspersed with seven one-day internationals. A three-game home Test rubber was shared with the doughty Sri Lanka and a series of five limited-over games was lost. To put the icing on the cricket cake, Twenty20 games were played against Pakistan and Sri Lanka. The cost in terms of health was considerable. Injury and sickness provoked the withdrawal of Vaughan, Giles, Flintoff and Trescothick from the Indian and Pakistani segment of the programme. Yet, by some ironic paradox England's winter adversity yielded a handsome profit — it triggered England's youthful renaissance and gave birth to a side, which will give Australia a hard run for the Ashes.

India did not feel the full blast of the wind of player change like England. But it was certainly re-invigorated by a strong refreshing breeze. Wasim Jaffer, Virender Sehwag, Irfan Pathan, S. Sreesanth, V. R. V. Singh and Munaf Patel won their way into Rahul Dravid's side at the expense of Das, Ramesh, Ganguly, Srinath and Zaheer Khan. The injured Sachin Tendulkar created another vacancy. Defying the odds — and stiff opposition — by dropping Sourav Ganguly, India's most successful skipper, the selectors and coach Greg Chappell placed their trust in youth and the likes of the ebullient 'keeper Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Mohammad Kaif and Yuvraj Singh. This young and stable nucleus of the side enabled the skipper Dravid to distribute the heavy workload of the season on capable and willing shoulders. He was rewarded by a drawn Test rubber with England followed by a crushing defeat of the same side in a seven-match one-day series on the sub-continent and the first Indian Test series-win in the Caribbean in 35 years.

By contrast, Australia's lead-up to the 2006 Ashes series and the subsequent World Cup has been nothing more than a gentle warm-up: it was made up of a comfortable home-town win against Lara's West Indians in a three-Test series and a home-and-away victory against South Africa in six Tests. Then followed an unequal contest with "the minnow" side Bangladesh, followed by what amounted to a four month rest-and-recuperation programme, interrupted only by a training camp at the Australian Centre of Excellence in Brisbane. After a "Commando-Outback Camp" it will be left to a tri-series against India and the West Indies in Malaysia in September, the Champions Trophy in India in October, and a handful of domestic Pura Cup games to ease Ponting's champions into the serious business of Anglo-Australian Tests and the World Cup at the turn of the year.

The relaxation of competitive pressure on the Australian side has been both therapeutic and constructive. Not only has it allowed the first XI to recharge its batteries and re-focus on the serious cricket goals of 2007, but it has also permitted the coaching staff to advance the cricketing education of the fringe elements of the national side and the emerging talent — one rung lower down the ladder of opportunity. For "fringe elements" and "emerging talent" read all-rounders James Hopes, Cameron White, and Shane Watson; pacemen Mitchell Johnston, Brett Dorey, Mike Lewis and Shaun Tait, off-spinner Dan Cullen and batsmen Phil Jaques, Shaun Marsh, Mark Cosgrove, Travis Birt, Doug Bollinger and Ben Hilfenhaus. It is worth remembering that over the ages, the most consistently successful teams have been those like Mumbai in India, Surrey in England and New South Wales in Australia: sides with strong reserves capable of mending gaps in their composition caused by injury or national calls with no weakening of their overall synergy. For such teams it does not matter that "the Old Order Changeth".