Ashley Giles left for Australia and Lions duties a satisfied man on Sunday. His appointment as head coach of the England one-day sides was a break with the norm and a journey into the unknown — an extension of the split captaincy — designed to afford downtime and an extended career to the director of cricket, Andy Flower, and to bring a new touch to the side’s limited-overs cricket. It seems to have worked.
Key senior players were missing from the trip to India in January but still England lost only by the single match in five, a considerable improvement on previous series. And now a dangerous New Zealand side who had just turned over South Africa have been beaten both in T20 and convincingly in the ODIs. It was England’s first win in a bilateral series against them since 1994 and the first in New Zealand since two years before that.
The presence of Giles seems to have refreshed the players and, just as pertinently, the coaching staff, who have enjoyed engaging with other ideas not just from Giles but also Graham Thorpe, who replaced Graham Gooch as batting coach. There is a good chance that relationship will be made permanent.
While Flower begins preparations for the Test series by moving to Queenstown after watching the Lions getting trounced across the Tasman Sea, Giles will be planning for the brief return series with the Kiwis in May but, more importantly, for the Champions Trophy in England in June — a tournament the home side have high hopes of winning and one in which he was a losing finalist. The split coaching roles will allow for such relatively long-term thinking, where once Flower and his predecessors had, in the cliche, to take each series, in whatever format, as it came.
“Now,” said Giles, “I can go away and start looking in much more detail how we go about trying to win these games and tournaments, and our opposition. The planning has to be much more meticulous in terms of analysing the opposition, for example, and the venues. Sometimes you do just fall into series. On the back of a major Test series it can suddenly catch up with you and you get the white balls out and just get on with it. It’s my job to make sure there is a clear switch now between the types of balls.”
There will be selectorial issues that require some tough decisions before the Champions Trophy. It is little more than a month until a preliminary squad needs to be announced and beyond that only a few matches against New Zealand in which to fine-tune match preparations.
Before he left, Giles and Alastair Cook, the captain, sat for three hours and went over the recent past and plans for the future. Nothing is set in stone but it would be a surprise if the bulk of the work on personnel has not been done. But it is here where lies the problem, which Giles admits is a pleasant one.
England have fielded a batting side of quality in which each of the top six has performed significant roles over the past two months. What has thrown things into confusion is the incredible rise of Joe Root as a fully fledged batsman in all three formats. He has been given the opportunity largely through the absence of senior players — Jonathan Trott in India and Kevin Pietersen in New Zealand — and has responded with brilliant maturity.
If England are to play a full hand of five front-line bowlers (and they will) Giles, Flower and the national selector, Geoff Miller, will be unable to squeeze a quart into a pint pot: one of Cook, Ian Bell, Trott, Root or Eoin Morgan will have to go to make room for Pietersen. Someone will be hugely disappointed.
Beyond that comes the Jos Buttler conundrum. The demotion of Craig Kieswetter to the county ranks and the sidelining of Jonny Bairstow means that Buttler is the first-choice one-day keeper. The problem is, first, he does not keep for Somerset and, second, that despite his new status, this is unlikely to change, given his potential absence with England.
It is not something in which Giles feels he can get involved more than superficially. “I will be speaking to Somerset about both players,” he said. “But I can’t get involved beyond that. I can’t tell Somerset what to do. However, it’s pretty obvious Jos needs to keep wicket now. It is a very difficult situation for Somerset because they have a responsibility to Craig to help him get back in the side, but Jos is the England one-day keeper. I don’t envy their position.” A change of county for Buttler seems the only solution.