England v Australia: Nothing left to chance in England’s selection for Oval finale

Uncapped pair Simon Kerrigan and Chris Woakes were yesterday’s surprise call-ups to England’s squad for the final Ashes Test – but a double debut is a long shot at the Kia Oval.

Chris Tremlett

Maiden Tests are a relative rarity in the very successful and regimental Andy Flower era, and not since Michael Carberry and Steven Finn began their careers against Bangladesh in Chittagong in March 2010 has there been more than one debutant in the same match.

Circumstances are slightly skewed this week, however, and England’s selectors have left nothing to chance by naming a belt-and-braces squad of 14.

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Despite hopes that Yorkshire would see a fourth player called up this summer, there was no place for the in-form Gary Ballance.

The Zimbabwe-born 23-year-old has scored three centuries this month – including one for England Lions against Australia in a two-day practice match in Northampton.

Should Ballance continue to impress, though, it would be difficult to see him being left out for the return series in Australia this winter.

The obvious reading is that second spinner Kerrigan and bowling all-rounder Woakes are in the mix purely, on this valedictory occasion with the Ashes already won for a third successive time, for the experience of rubbing shoulders with an established guard they may be joining during next winter’s rematch in Australia.

Chris Tremlett, one of two seam-bowling additions alongside Finn to the team which made it 3-0 at Chester-le-Street, is an obvious choice to return on his home ground in place of Yorkshire’s injured Tim Bresnan, whose season has been ended by a back injury.

Kerrigan and Woakes’s inclusion is nonetheless intriguing, and leaves room for plenty of second-guessing as to England’s always closely-guarded motives.

Is there a case for a second spinner, for example, at a venue which has occasionally accommodated that tactic for its traditional August Test?

If so, given England’s steadfast and apparently non-negotiable refusal under Flower and the captaincy of Alastair Cook or his predecessor Andrew Strauss to deploy an extra frontline bowler, Woakes as well as Kerrigan would come into the reckoning.

England have not had the all-rounder luxury since Andrew Flintoff was forced into early retirement by injury, and have relied on wicketkeeper Matt Prior’s outstanding batting ability to balance the side.

In Woakes, the medium-term hope must be that he may be good enough to bat at No 7. In the immediate, though, there are two obvious counter-arguments to that.

The first is that Prior’s form has been unusually and worryingly modest with the bat this summer, and England’s batting would therefore look vulnerable with Woakes in for Jonny Bairstow.

The second is that it would be harsh – and out of character by England’s management – to sacrifice Bairstow at No 6, as he tries to establish himself as part of their Plan A for the winter.

On the other hand, Woakes’s ability to make up the shortfall of pace overs behind James Anderson and Stuart Broad – who have bowled more than 300 overs between them against Australia so far this summer – is more obvious in English conditions, albeit late season at the Oval, than overseas.

It would also allow Cook and Flower to keep the fragile Tremlett under wraps for a little longer, with their eyes on his potential key involvement still to come Down Under.

True to type, national selector Geoff Miller was giving nothing away about any of the above permutations when he reflected on yesterday morning’s squad announcement.

Instead, he simply stuck to a mantra which is not designed for early notification of England’s intentions.

“The inclusion of five pace bowlers as well as an additional spinner in Simon Kerrigan, who has impressed with Lancashire and England Lions in recent years, gives Andy Flower and Alastair Cook plenty of options once they have assessed the conditions at the Kia Oval,” said Miller.

It is a leap to surmise any hint there that Kerrigan enters the equation on a spinner’s surface, more likely – especially with no chances needed to be taken from 3-0 up – that England are simply being conservative, and inclusive, in their selection.

Kerrigan, like Finn for Anderson et al, could also simply be cover in case England decide a rest is in order for Graeme Swann after his 23 Ashes wickets to date this summer – although it will be a brave coach who breaks the news to any of the regulars that they need to sit out the latest coronation.

Left-arm orthodox Kerrigan can nonetheless surely conclude that he is the new man in possession as Swann’s understudy, or partner in the right conditions, after Monty Panesar’s meltdown.

Lancashire cricket director Mike Watkinson is optimistic the call-up is coming at the right time for the 24-year-old.

“It is a great opportunity,” he said. “Simon’s still improving. He’s still young and working out the right way to bowl at various stages in the game, what tactical role he’s got at a certain stage in the match.

“But he’s getting people out, and good ones. That’s very promising.”

England, meanwhile, have obvious concerns about Bresnan’s well-being in time to be named next month in the squad to travel to Australia.

Miller said: “Tim Bresnan has made valuable contributions with both bat and ball during the series, and I would like to wish him all the very best in his recovery from his back injury.

“The focus for Bresnan now will be the tour of Australia later this year, while this Test will provide an opportunity for another member of this squad to make equally vital contributions.”

As for Kerrigan himself, he admitted last night that he initially struggled to digest the “surreal” news that he had been called up by England but has now sets his sights on trying to force his way into contention for Wednesday.

“I’m delighted to be selected, but it was a bit hard to take in when he (Miller) rang,” said Kerrigan.

“It all felt a bit surreal. I’ve been inundated with good luck (messages) and congratulations. My phone went into a bit of a meltdown.

“Hopefully, I can impress over and be ready if they choose two spinners.”

England squad for fifth and final Test v Australia, starting on Wednesday: AN Cook (Captain), JM Anderson, JM Bairstow, IR Bell, SCJ Broad, ST Finn, SC Kerrigan, KP Pietersen, MJ Prior (wkt), JE Root, GP Swann, CT Tremlett, IJL Trott, CR Woakes.