One day in the summer of 1987, Paul Smith found himself in the England dressing room at Edgbaston during a rain break.
Smith, a Warwickshire player, was 23 at the time. He had scored 1,500 first-class runs as an opening batsmen the previous season and, as a bowler, had been dubbed “the fastest white man in the world” by Bob Willis. He had, he thought, a decent chance of a call-up as England started to contemplate life after Sir Ian Botham.
But then he heard Micky Stewart, the England coach at the time, list some of the issues facing his team. And one sentence, in particular, put him back in his place with a jolt. “The problem is, we just don’t have any allrounders,” he recalls Stewart saying.
It was a moment of crushing disappointment. A moment when all the hopes and dreams of recent months suddenly seemed foolish and naive. A moment when the door to the England team seemed to have been slammed in his face.
There will be a host of England-qualified cricketers feeling the same way today. For as much as it has been encouraging for the likes of Laurie Evans and Richard Gleeson to win inclusion in this extended training group, it is probably the omissions which tell us most. Not to be in included among the 55 – that’s five teams – really does seem like a knockout punch.
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The absence of Alex Hales‘ name that will draw the most attention. And it’s true that, on form, he should be there. But Eoin Morgan, England’s limited-overs captain, made it clear on Wednesday that there would be no imminent return.
Many might think missing a World Cup – and such a World Cup – was punishment enough. It now seems Hales will miss the T20 one as well. But Morgan has earned the right to lead the limited-overs teams as he sees fit and clearly feels the culture he has inculcated requires further entrenchment. And it is true, it is not so long since some cricketers seemed more motivated by thoughts of their next night out than training or even playing for their country. The treatment of Hales provides a sobering reminder of the consequences and will serve as a deterrent.
There’s still a way back. He could win a recall in 2021, if he continues to score heavily and maintain a clean disciplinary record. He really is very good. But he’s 31 now. And some of those who have taken advantage of his absence, notably Tom Banton, are every bit of 10 years younger. That’s an uncomfortable equation for Hales.
There’s probably no way back for Liam Plunkett. He is now 35 and, in the year leading into the World Cup, clearly struggled to redress a notable drop of pace. As England look to challenges ahead, conditions in which his cutters may find little grip and that drop in pace might be punished, it is clear they have decided to move on. It’s not necessarily wrong, but it is ruthless.
Plunkett really was terrific in that World Cup. England won every match in which he played and, lest it be forgotten, he claimed three wickets – including that of Kane Williamson – in the final. Indeed, it’s probably no coincidence they lost only six of his final 57 ODIs. Maybe, in time, he will reflect that bowing out of international cricket in that Lord’s final was better than doing so in an empty Ageas Bowl in September. Either way, it to be hoped this ending does not leave a sour taste in a mouth that was full of champagne not so long ago.
Whatever happens, Hales and Plunkett and even Gary Ballance, who seems destined for a Ramprakashian second half of his career, can console themselves with the memories of many fine days in the sun wearing an England shirt. It has to end sometime and it nearly always ends badly.
Jamie Porter and Sam Northeast do not even have that consolation. Porter’s frustration, in particular, is understandable. He was told, in the summer of 2018, that he would play Test cricket at some stage that year. But James Anderson refused to age, Chris Woakes and Sam Curran offered better batting options and Porter fell back among the pack.
He’s only 27 so there is time to come again. But with the next couple of winters offering Test tours of India and Australia, his style of bowling – fast-medium, accurate and skilful though it is – is not as fashionable as it once was. Like Jake Ball, who not so long ago looked the best seamer in the county game, the sense lingers that England have not extracted all they could from their talent. Both could be forgiven for concluding, in the dark hours, that their moment has gone.
Northeast, meanwhile, may reflect that he needs to bat at No. 3 – or higher – if he is to force his way into the England side. He is a fine player but in batting at No. 4, where he is expected to feature for Hampshire this summer, he is putting himself up against Joe Root. That’s not a battle he’s going to win. Increasingly it seems he’ll be sharing knowing expressions with James Hildreth, who long ago stopped looking out for his name on such lists, when the pair pass on the county circuit.
Perhaps the exclusion of Joe Clarke is the most unfortunate. Not so long ago, Clarke looked the outstanding young batsman in the county game. Clearly his involvement in the ugliness around the Alex Hepburn case disturbed his equilibrium, but he remains a special talent and one, perhaps, who could have done with some encouragement. It is to be hoped the timing of Hepburn’s appeal is not relevant. Clarke was never accused of anything unlawful and has served his time in respect to other matters. He endured a grim 2019 but remains a potential England player.
The door is not shut on him or several others. While Mark Stoneman may feel distraught at having fallen behind almost two-dozen other batsmen, he must remind himself this training group contains many white-ball options or middle-order Test players. It will only take a broken finger here and a poor run of form there to see him back in the reckoning as a Test opener. This is a setback, of course, but it need not signal the end.
Usually, after squads are announced, players can console themselves that they just missed out. This time feels different: not only is it vast, but the fact that many of those excluded will remain furloughed and distanced from the game will make it tough to accept for those on the outside. It’s another reminder, if one were required, that professional sport is a brutal business.