When it comes to continuity of selection of a successful team, there can be a fine line between cultivating confidence and creating an air of complacency. Alf Ramsey's famous words to the World Cup hat-trick hero Geoff Hurst after the latter's cheery "see you next time" hold true.
"If selected, Geoffrey".
Some are more indispensable than others but no one's place is so sacrosanct that a streak of low scores or a barren spell with the ball cannot make a player vulnerable.
It is several months now since England drew in Nagpur to complete a memorable 2–1 Test series triumph against India but already things are moving on. The team then were selected with the conditions of the subcontinent and its particular bowlers and batsmen in mind. Nick Compton gained an opening spot because of his diligence; Samit Patel because of his versatility and technique against spin. Jonny Bairstow, so promising at Lord's, lost his place and then returned home early for family reasons.
At the urging of the batting and bowling coach, who saw something special, Patel was replaced for the final Test by Joe Root, whose impact was immediate. There was an injury to Stuart Broad from which he has only recently returned in New Zealand, and Tim Bresnan has left here to get his elbow sorted. Successful England may be but the squad remain in a state of flux.
On Wednesday at the Queenstown Event Centre, whose name does scant justice to one of the world's most beautiful grounds, we shall see how far things have progressed. The four-day match against a New Zealand XI is the only warm-up game to be played before the first Test in Dunedin on 6 March and given the lack of any red-ball cricket since before Christmas, it is reasonable to suppose that with a single exception, the side England field will be the one they would like to see at the University Oval.
It would be simple, and perfectly logical, to take the side from Nagpur, replace Monty Panesar, the second spinner, with Steve Finn, and Bresnan with Broad, and go with that. But things may not be that simple. Back into the mix comes Bairstow, while Compton's stickability may not be sufficient evidence that he has a long-term Test future, given his age (29). Broad, meanwhile, has played no red-ball cricket since the second Test in Mumbai, while Finn looks ready to go and needs cotton-wooling.
At the centre of much of this is Root whose rise, in all three forms of the game, has been remarkable. Before the India tour it was thought that he and Compton would fight it out for the opening spot: it transpired that Compton had been pencilled in all along.
Root's only Test was characterised by maturity beyond his years in scoring 73 in almost five hours, a debut innings that arguably clinched the series in India. His performances in the short forms of the game have proved contrastingly inventive, impish and well-judged. Clearly he is an exceptional young player, one earmarked for a long international career perhaps, in fact probably, as captain. That, however, unless there is a shift elsewhere, may not be sufficient to keep his place at No6, for there is competition from Bairstow.
His heroics against South Africa at Lord's, where he made 95 and 54, were against one of the best seam attacks of recent years and marked him down also as an exceptional talent. His omission in India was simple pragmatism but we are in familiar conditions now. Root's success, and status as vogue player, should not mean that Bairstow's credentials are ignored.
There is a way it could be progressed however, even if it proved to be tough on Compton. It is quite conceivable that he was preferred to Root because his proven track record for Somerset, especially at the start of last season, showed his reliability, where Root's playing credentials were not so profound as they are now. Root will certainly open one day but if Compton is given a further run now, and fails to kick on, then that promotion would come in the Ashes. Better to give Root the experience now that he has proved his temperament.
For this game, New Zealand will probably be able to avoid one of Queenstown's lesser-known extreme sports in facing Finn with a new ball. He was devastating in the final two ODIs, his shortened run a triumph of proper advice finally getting through.
It means that Jimmy Anderson will be joined by Broad and Graham Onions, who can now battle it out for the third seamer place. The fact that Broad is, notionally, vice captain, does not make his place any more secure, and his bowling last summer was a level down from that expected. Onions, a terrific bowler whose tight line from close to the stumps can create real problems if there is any movement, may start as that favourite to take over from Bresnan. That is a game within a game worth watching.
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