There are a number of indisputably ‘top class’ players in the England side. For instance, James Anderson is one of the top two or three new ball bowlers in world cricket; Graeme Swann is one of the world’s top spinners when he’s fit; Alastair Cook is a certified run-machine; Matt Prior the best ‘keeper-batsman’ in the world (assuming De Villier’s label at the moment is still a ‘batsman-keeper’). Even Jonathan Trott is really quite excellent, and Kevin Pietersen has undeniable X Factor.
There are also a number of ‘prospects’ who look like they have bright futures or have just emerged onto the scene – Joe Root could well be a better player than I gave credence to in a previous post, Johnny Bairstow has showed pluck against South Africa, and Nick Compton recently scored a couple of centuries in NZ. The likes of Ben Stokes, Jos Buttler and several others in the Lions squad would also be at least half-members of this group. The odd failure from this set of players are entirely tolerable:- they’ve not been around long enough to develop familiarity in a supporter’s inevitable inner-huff of frustration and more specifically they haven’t repeatedly got on my goat over a sustained period of time. As much as anything, this is due to them not having had enough periods of success for me to become accustomed to, and thus comparable failure doesn’t seem so utterly tragic.
Then there is the third group of players within the group of players. This group have been around the international scene longer than the aforementioned second group of players and probably as long as the aforementioned first group of players, and this group of players are probably better bets than the second group of players for success but not as good a gamble as the first group of players who are (clearly) overall the better and more consistent group of players.
Stuart Broad is in this group, as is Ian Bell. They are sort of joined these days by Steven Finn (who is probably young enough to be in the second group but unfortunate to have been around long enough to have migrated into this one instead), as well as to a lesser extent Monty Panesar and Tim Bresnan, and just about clinging on to this miscellaneous posse is Ravi Bopara.
When members of this group hit their not-inconsequential straps, they can be both irresistible and irrepressible in one. Broad is the latest example, bowling England to victory as if he had been possessed by the hybrid, all-conquering spirits of Marshall, McGrath and Malcolm (1994 of course). It is not as though this was an entirely isolated performance from Broad either – both South Africa and Australia have been skittled almost in a session by the 6″5 Malfoy on steroids.
This group by nature are a lot easier to accept when they’ve recently tasted success. Broad’s previous two years of injury-ridden offal are now forgiven in terms of his place for the forthcoming Ashes – who knows, perhaps he’ll be able to continue in this vein?! It is when there passes a lengthy period of mediocrity that things get interesting. Steven Finn hasn’t looked particularly good in England whites ironically since he was dropped mid-Ashes Down Under in 2010. He is still aided of course by his age (which leans him towards Group Two) and he has continued to pick up apparently cheap wickets, though with each match that passes with little serious impression from Finn the calls for the return of fellow groupée Tim Bresnan get louder.
Likewise, Ian Bell’s position in the side looks shaky (again). Bell’s Test average of 47 is undeniably good, yet he is batting on a perennially sticky wicket at the moment; he has scored just one century in his last 32 Test innings. To perspectivise (made-up word) this, in his 24 innings preceding this poor run Bell racked up 8 centuries at an average of 86. Bell remains a man capable of imperious confidence with every shot in the book, yet equally capable of being labelled a ‘shirker’ or a first ball mental disintegration to charge down the wicket and miscue a nothing shot in Ahmedabad. If it wasn’t for the injury to Kevin Pietersen, it is highly likely that at this stage a number of “Group Two-ers” would be being touted for Bell’s position in the team. As it is, we’ve already got Root, Compton and Bairstow in the XI so Bell is likely to get over his illness and feature again, even though his Test form probably doesn’t deserve it. Perversely as with much of Group Three however, his overall Test record does.