Make a habit of two things: to help; or at least to do no harm – Hippocrates.
This quote comes to mind when pondering the relationship between the ECB and the County Championship. The apparent double-standards in allowing certain players to play in the IPL, whilst forcing counties to rest others, in particular Stuart Broad and James Anderson, has baffled and irked many cricket observers.
It is a terribly English attitude of worrying about the worst-case scenario. No one is suggesting these players shouldn’t be handled carefully, with an important winter coming up, but it’s also imperative to get rhythm from bowling in the middle and providing the County Championship with added quality for the fans.
After all, Anderson and Broad haven’t played any cricket since December and January, respectively, and neither will be involved in any white ball cricket for England this year. In fact, if I were to encourage anyone to be rested, it would be the more injury prone Ben Stokes, who plays all formats. In fact, he has been almost ever present for England since the World T20 in March/April 2016, and, as a true all rounder, gives England a considerable edge against Australia (think Botham in 1981 and Flintoff in 2005).
James Anderson and Stuart Broad are one of England’s best test bowling pairs in history so it is perhaps justified to worry about either of them being absent. However, there is also reason to be optimistic that other bowlers could come into the team and perform well if they were to get injured. Seeing Durham’s Mark Wood back in action is particularly encouraging, but there are also uncapped bowlers putting their hands up for selection. For example, Surrey’s Mark Footitt, who has picked up 13 wickets at an average of 18.15, swings the ball at good pace and, perhaps crucially, is a rare English left armer. In his first class career to date he has taken an impressive 326 wickets at a cost of just over 25 each.
A couple of qualities go against him though. First, these days the England management prefers to pick bowlers who can bat, and Footitt is very much an old school tail ender (he averages only 8.34 in first class cricket). Second, if history tells you anything, he might be too old to fit the mould of an England test player. In fact, England haven’t handed a test cap to a 31-year-old seam bowler since Martin Saggers in 2003. I would imagine they’d be much more inclined to pluck the exciting Ben Coad from Yorkshire, who’s taken an unbelievable 18 wickets at 13.05 runs a piece this year. It instinctively feels a little too early to think about Coad for England, but if he keeps taking the volume of wickets he has been, who knows! Either way, the rise of young bowlers like Coad assuages the fears of James Anderson’s retirement in the not too distant future.
With the Ashes in mind, one could argue it would be sensible if the ECB do have Footit at the forefront of their plans. England can boast an excellent seam bowling attack in Anderson, Broad, Woakes and Stokes. However, in terms of pace and action, they are quite alike, and so Footitt could give England added quality and variety. Indeed, the bowling attack that so demoralised England in the 2013/14 Ashes consisted of Mitchell Johnson, Ryan Harris, Peter Siddle, Nathan Lyon and Shane Watson, which collectively provided a perfect blend of left arm/right arm, pace/swing, and metronomic accuracy/short intimidating bowling.
Would Footitt need to wait for an injury to get into the England side? If you assume Buttler will bat at 7, like he did at the end of the series in India, then yes they will have to wait. I believe that the England side doesn’t need a specialist batsman this low in the order, however. Moeen Ali has scored 1139 runs at an average of 45.56 at number 7 and is, presumably, still the first choice spin option. In addition, Chris Woakes is a fine batsman with a sound technique, who actually averages more at number 8 than number 9 (33.46 vs. 22.28, respectively). Therefore, the team has room for another bowler, which would likely ease the workload of Broad and Anderson. This may be harsh on Jos Buttler, who performed very well in India, but I think he should be challenging for a position in the top 6 if he isn’t wearing the wicket keeping gloves.
If the ECB continues to hinder the value of the County Championship, it must get selection right with the England test team. Players like Footitt should be given playing time in the whites of the England test team this summer. The variation he would provide to the England attack could be critical if England want to retain the ashes this winter.