• The Ashes, Fourth Test

Bairstow in line to replace Prior

George Dobell in Melbourne
December 25, 2013
Jonny Bairstow is likely to keep wicket for England in the fourth Ashes Test © PA Photos

The sight of Jonny Bairstow with the gloves, taking catches from Matt Prior at training, underlined the impression that England go into the fourth Test of this Ashes series embracing a fresh start.

With the Ashes lost, and the winds of change starting to pick up, Bairstow will, barring injury, replace Prior in the England side for match at the MCG. He is far from the finished article with the gloves, but his batting looks in good shape, he has a competitive instinct that should serve him well and, most of all, he is fresh.

That fresh word should not, in normal circumstances, be overly relevant. But as it becomes clear that the current England team is listless and jaded from too many battles, too many journeys and too much time in the same environment, the need for new faces and new energy has become apparent.

Alastair Cook on...

  • Graeme Swann:
  • "It wasn't a big surprise when I spoke to him. Looking into his eyes, it was quite an emotional chat. Graeme gave up a lot for that England shirt and he had no more to give. I thought it was a very brave decision. When somebody gives up playing for England it's a huge decision. He's only 34 in age but obviously speaking to him about his body and his mind, he said he had nothing more to give and he couldn't do it any justice. To me, once a guy is in that situation there was no point hanging around because he will only drag energy from the group, whether you want to or not. No-one forces you to play cricket for England. We're very privileged. He could have just hung on for these two games and, whether he had played or not would have been pretty irrelevant, but he could have stayed, but he said he had no more to give and he felt he had no more left. It's a brave decision. He will be missed as he was a fine, fine cricketer for England."
  • Kevin Pietersen:
  • "He has a huge part to play in the future. He's another guy I've talked to quite a bit over the last couple of days, and his hunger and determination to play a lot more for England and help England win games of cricket is as high as ever. In this series he has hit the ball pretty well, just he's made some mistakes which have cost him. He's desperate to turn it round. He loves the big stage and there's no bigger stage than a Boxing Day Test match."
  • Monty Panesar:
  • "Monty is playing his 50th Test if he plays this game and that in itself is a great achievement. He had a very successful first part of his career and then Swanny came along and achieved what he achieved so quickly. He's played the part of the second spinner when we've needed one. He's a fine bowler. Technically he's excellent, we all know that, and he's got the chance to try to establish himself as England's No1 spinner."

So, for the first time since August 2008 (when an England side with Tim Ambrose as keeper and Monty Panesar as spinner defeated South Africa at The Oval), England go into a Test without Prior, Jonathan Trott or Graeme Swann. While Swann has followed Andrew Strauss and Paul Collingwood into retirement, Prior, like Trott, might be considered a casualty of the schedule and the environment in which they have found themselves: fine players prematurely worn by over-use.

Prior's international career, like Trott's, is not necessarily over. He has been dropped before and showed the determination and class to bounce back. He is only 31 and a period of rest and recuperation may work wonders.

But this time it will not be easy. Once a side has moved on to a rebuilding phase and embraced the promise of younger men, it is much harder for those aged over 30 to fight their way back irrespective of how well they do in domestic cricket. Just ask Mark Ramprakash or Alan Richardson. So, with the likes of Jos Buttler progressing, there is a real possibility that, after 75 Tests, nearly 4,000 runs and 230 dismissals, the Prior era is over.

If that is so, he can look back on a terrific career characterised by selfless batting and reliable keeping. While never in the class of Alan Knott or Bob Taylor, Prior nevertheless became a decent keeper and, with his encouragement and advice, the heartbeat of England's fielding unit. Even his DRS calls will prove hard to replace. It was telling that, when all the cameramen and photographers had departed and the rest of the team dispersed after training, Prior hugged Bairstow and wished him luck. His commitment to the team remains exemplary.

With so many changes enforced upon England, there may be few other alterations. Panesar looks certain to play, as does Stuart Broad, while Boyd Rankin has been impressing in training and has made a strong case for inclusion ahead of Tim Bresnan. Any plans England may have had to drop any more senior players, even Kevin Pietersen, have been shelved. Fresh blood is important, but experience is also required for a game which will attract more than 90,000 spectators on the first day alone.

"It's all well and good saying 'the future, the future', but you've got to believe those players are ready to play as well," Alastair Cook said. "So there is a bit of a balancing act. We are so lucky with the support we've got, we owe it to them to try and put in a good performance."

The next age of England cricket extends beyond selection. Cook also admitted that results ahead of this series - the draw in New Zealand and the victories in the English summer - might have 'papered over cracks' in the side and that the fresh start provided an opportunity for improvement at all levels. Not least, according to Cook, there is a need for him to examine and improve his captaincy.

"When you win games of cricket it papers over some of the cracks that have been developing lately," he said. "And when you lose it hits you with stark reality exactly what you think needs to improve. There is no hiding place because you can't hide behind the fact that you are winning.

"So yes, I do believe [this situation] it is a chance for me to really stamp my authority. I think it will take time, as always. I've always tried to do the best job I can do, and maybe, by losing 3-0, I've really had to look into myself and see where I need to improve as captain.

"Previously, before that, we had won against New Zealand, we won the Ashes at home and won away in India, which is a great achievement but maybe that papered over some of the cracks in my captaincy as well.

"After these two games we have a bit of time off Test cricket - I think five months - and it's a real good chance to get very clear about exactly the direction I want the side - or we want the side - to go.

"When you lose games of cricket, you have to look at yourself first and what I could've done better. As a captain, I haven't had too much captaincy experience before I got the England job. There's always going to be a huge amount of stuff to learn and I've always said that, but we've always managed to win, so you always tend to look at yourself even more after losing games of cricket and see where I need to improve."

What England need most from Cook, though, is runs. It was his runs that led them in India and his runs that provided the platform for England's success here in 2010-11. Leadership comes in different forms and for Cook and England, a return to batting form from their captain would prove more influential than any field placing or inspirational speech.

This article originally appeared on ESPNcricinfo
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

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