The case for Vince
Whatever else Ed Smith achieves as England's national selector, his earliest tour de force will long be remembered as the selection of Jos Buttler. Everyone could see Buttler's rare talent but no one, up to the point of the start of this summer's Test series against Pakistan, could work out how to get the whole nine yards from it.
Shane Warne set Buttler on his way during this year's IPL, with unconditional praise and encouragement for his ability to be translated into any form of cricket in any role. Warne was back "mentoring" Rajasthan Royals, who reached the semi-finals, and spent much of his time at Buttler's side. Privately, the great legspinner was, well, rather star-struck, and Buttler could feel the love. It was not a love that went unrequited, and now, four months on and after a first Test hundred, we will get to see the whole nine yards. As vice-captain and with bat, pads and wicketkeeping gloves, Buttler will be England's fulcrum at the Ageas Bowl. You don't have to be English to appreciate this happy state of affairs - Sunil Gavaskar calls Jos his favourite England cricketer. (One assumes he means of the day, given the titanic on-field battles and delightful off-field friendships that have lasted with Sir Ian Botham and Geoffrey Boycott for more than 40 years.)
It seems to me that Buttler should undertake his role from No. 6 in the order, a place where his influence on the game can be both front- and back-loaded.
Smith had made other bold and admirable selections, which in their different ways have now created a problem. Keaton Jennings' improvement for Lancashire was worth promotion, especially as Mark Stoneman was gradually shutting down in an England shirt. Stoneman is not the first to fall foul of desire, an emotion sometimes so deep that it reduces men to shadows. Though Jennings' desire appears to be less intense than Stoneman's, he too has lost the flow in batting that allows defence and attack to operate in equal measure. Because opening batsmen are most effective as a pair, this inertia highlights Alastair Cook's uncertainty at the wicket and, to some degree, increases the expectation on Joe Root, who comes in next. It is well known that Root would prefer to bat at four, and though that debate will surely run on, it would be too unsettling to move him again right now.
Smith also championed Ollie Pope, whose season for Surrey has sparkled in a fashion that caught many an eye. Of course, his performances came from No. 6 in the order, a place from which Surrey refused to move him whatever else happened to their batting line-up. This meant that the wicketkeeper, Ben Foakes, batted above him and for good reason: it was the right thing for the team and for the players concerned. Pushing Pope up to four for England was a gamble forced on Smith by the general reluctance to tinker with the riches at five, six and seven, though goodness knows why. Yes, Smith saw a No. 4 batsman in Pope but Alec Stewart, master of all things cricket at The Oval, warned against it. For the moment.
Stewart was more comfortable - delighted in fact - with the selection and positioning of Sam Curran but understandably choked at the news that Smith's second sensational selection of the summer had been abandoned upon Ben Stokes' return to action. This was a tricky one, mind you, and once Stokes was so openly backed by his captain, the options were limited.
I would have left out Pope before Curran, moved the senior guys up the order one place, and backed Curran to make more runs than Pope - from No. 8 anyway. But neither decision was satisfactory. Truth be told, it felt uncomfortable having Stokes back straight away and seemed an almost impossible task for him to first ride the mental strain of a serious courtroom encounter and then lock in to a five-day Test, cricket's most draining challenge. For the most part, especially with the ball, he looked like a man trying too hard, but his fifty in the second innings was a triumph of resolve and honour in his workplace - a further indication that he is ready and able to bat wherever, whenever.
The one decision Smith has been reluctant to take has been over the inclusion of James Vince. This surprises observers outside England, who see a batsman with a lot of game, but has sympathy at home, where Vince's consistently frustrating modes of dismissal have worn thin. Smith wanted more substance: more accountability in Hampshire colours and more responsibility for the preservation of one's own wicket. He wanted the best half of the desire that brought down Stoneman, the bit where a man desperately cares. This is not to say Vince is uncaring, but actions and appearances are everything if runs are short.
I have long been a fan, which has nothing to do with the Hampshire connection and everything to do with the lack of batsmen out there who have anywhere near Vince's technical skill, time to play their shots, and calm demeanour. The eighty-odd he made in Brisbane was special; the run-out that cost him his wicket somewhat vague. There, in the vagueness, lies the Smith argument. Of course, had Vince played the wild drive that cost Pope his wicket at Trent Bridge, it would have been because he is vague-Vince. But the shot was played by Pope - the buzzing, purposeful, energetic Pope - and with it comes the reasoning of impetuous youth.
Anyway, needs must. A good season, underlined last week by scores of 74 and 147 in a crucial Championship match against Nottinghamshire, has led to a softening of Smith's view. It is said Vince has been brought in as cover for Jonny Bairstow, but given prime form and a definite turning of the corner of self-esteem, he should play anyway.
I have long thought he might open the batting for England and now is the time. Down the track, he might do so alongside Nick Gubbins - or Jennings, whom one feels for, for he has had to bat this summer on the most awkward surfaces - but, first up, Cook is the perfect shoulder on which to lean. Their left and right hands complement one another, as do the different styles of play.
There is concern that after two decent runs in the side that have led to relatively little in terms of production, Vince will have residual scarring. Some folk take longer to learn about themselves than others at this level of the game - witness how the selectors' perseverance with Mike Gatting, and even more resoundingly, Steve Waugh, paid off. In contrast, Curran's self-belief and lightness-of-being are a joy but the Zimbabwean sunshine and parents with a deep-rooted sense of cricket optimism have played their part in that. Not all are so lucky. Vince is more ready now than he has ever been.
The other "county" player in fine form is Moeen Ali. A double-hundred against Yorkshire in the same round of matches in which Vince made runs, and wild, unexpected offspinning success against India at the Ageas Bowl four years ago promote his case more forcefully than at any time all summer. These are cricketers in peak form, and though as a rule of thumb, selectors should resist chop and change, the case here is for the team of the moment.
Stokes, apparently, is not 100% fit to bowl. This, and the fact that the four-strong fast bowling axis of Anderson, Broad, Stokes and Woakes has never quite done it for England as the names suggest it might have, prompt the inclusion of Stokes as a top-order batsman who can bowl some potentially thrilling stuff if the stars are aligned. It also further prompts the inclusion of Curran, whose left-arm swingers trouble the Indian batsmen's penchant for playing around their front pad. A luxurious collection of allrounders indeed: not one to be dismissed as a lack of specialists, one to be celebrated and applied.
Taking into account the recent damp weather, the venue and the opponents then, a good team for the fourth Test would be: Cook, Vince, Root, Stokes, Pope, Buttler (wk), Moeen, Curran, Woakes, Broad, Anderson. If Bairstow is fit to bat, he plays instead of Pope. Adil Rashid is on hand if the pitch and weather suddenly turn subcontinental.