Saturday, 17 March 2012

Swann, Panesar, and pecking-orders

In recent times, England selections have been less haphazard and random, and far more 'pecking-order' orientated. Gone are the days of bizarre one-off selections, and instead we have a system where players battle their way up the ranks, and everyone knows where they stand.

England's policy when injury or loss of form dictates that changes must be made is to look to the 'next cab off the rank'. When Paul Collingwood retired, the next cab was Eoin Morgan. When Jonathan Trott got injured, the replacement cab was Ravi Bopara. England's squad has a clearly defined pecking-order, and everyone knows where everyone else is on the way.

Jimmy Anderson is the leader of the fast-bowling attack, with Stuart Broad behind him. Matt Prior is the number one wicket-keeper, with Steve Davies behind him. And Graeme Swann is England's number one spinner. Or is he?

While the pecking-orders can be set in stone, they can also be flexible. Going into the UAE tour, Tim Bresnan was the third seamer, coming off the back of an excellent India series the previous summer. When Bresnan got injured, Chris Tremlett came in, meaning that Steve Finn was a lowly fifth in line to the fast bowling throne. However, Finn's performances in the ODI series meant that when Stuart Broad was withdrawn from the first warm-up game, Finn was turned to ahead of the now-fit Bresnan.

Graeme Swann has been England's number one spinner since 2009, when he wrested the crown from Monty Panesar in the West Indies. And it wasn't that long ago that Swann was considered the best spinner in test cricket, let alone in England. But Panesar has rip-roared his way back into test cricket after a three year sabbatical, picking up five-fers in each of the four games he's played in since his return. And his ascent has come just as a few questions have been asked of Swann after a quiet 2011, meaning that further down the line, some tough questions could be asked of the selectors.

After England have finished their stint on spin-friendly subcontinental pitches, they'll be back to England to take on West Indies on green pitches in May, meaning that only one spinner will be picked. As it stands, Swann is England's first choice spinner, but what if Monty continues to torment the Sri Lankan batsmen, just as he did the Pakistanis in his two tests against them? There are signs that the pecking-order isn't as set in stone as previously thought, with Swann only asked to bowl 1 over in Pakistan's first innings of the third test, with Panesar bowling 13. The total game comparison saw Monty wheel away for 70 overs compared to Swann's 40 - perhaps a sign that captain Strauss is placing more trust in the massive hands of Panesar?

I'm not saying that I personally would pick Panesar over Swann at this moment in time, it isn't inconceivable that at some stage Swann is superseded by the bearded Monty. However, a healthy rivalry may not be a bad thing for Swann. The pressure put on him by a genuine rival for his place means that he'll have to constantly be on his game, and will push himself harder to produce when it matters. The idea of the pecking-order system means that players constantly need to justify their places in the team or their dropped - just ask Eoin Morgan. This need to perform will see better performances from both Swann and Panesar, which can only be good for English fortunes. While the pair will bowl in tandem for this Sri Lankan tour, and likely at the back end of the year in the Indian tour, their partnership will turn into a fight for a place in the team when only one spinner is required, meaning that the spin contest between Swann and Panesar will surely become a long running battle over the next few years. And with two players pushing harder and harder to do well, this can only be a good thing for England.

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