I've just been watching England comfortably beat Bangladesh in a one-day international, which wasn't particularly interesting of itself, mostly because it was so comfortable, but also because the TV in the MCR is buggered and so the picture flicks in and out in a rather frustrating fashion. What is at least more interesting is the debate over whether England should play Kevin Pietersen or Graham Thorpe in the middle order once the real business of the Ashes starts, which was brought up by Ian Botham when commentating on what was clearly a dead match, in what was frankly a bit of a shameless display, even for someone as belligerent as Beefy. I rather suspect that Botham would actually prefer Pietersen even if he wasn't his agent, just because of the style of player Pietersen is, and the style of player Botham was - both hard-hitting, aggressive, unafraid of winding people up - but because of the position Botham is in, it seems a bit inappropriate. Anyway, I don't think Pietersen should oust Thorpe, initially at least, and not solely because of Thorpe's undoubted qualities, but also because I think Pietersen, in a Test match against someone like the Aussies, in the current Test side, might be a bit of a liability, especially with Flintoff in the side as well.
Botham pointed to Pietersen's first class figures, which whilst impressive - an average in the low fifties, 21 centuries from less than 120 innings - is not, I think, evidence that he should be an automatic pick for the Test side. Graeme Hick, to think of another, potentially equally destructive player, for whom England were also desperately waiting to qualify, after all, has a slighly higher first class average, has routinely destroyed county attacks, yet never quite made it as an international batsman, despite clear class. Ramprakash might also be considered, a player not quite as attacking as either Pietersen or Hick, or with first class figures quite as impressive, but one who certainly appeared like he would make it at international level from his first class performances. Neither of these two players got off to the same sort of start as Pietersen, and he appears not to have the psychological fragility which undoubtedly played a significant part in Hick and Ramprakash's failures at Test level, judging by the way he dealt with the understandable hostility of South African crowds in the series there. Still, he is untested at the highest level, and whilst there is every reason to believe he one day will be a Test player, I am not sure that the cauldron of the first Test of an Ashes series is the best place to investigate the foundations of that reasoning.
This is in particular if he is to come in for Thorpe. Thorpe is now the only player, apart from Vaughan, in the England side to have ever had much success against the Australians: in 16 matches, he has scored over 1200 runs, at an average of over 45, marginally higher than his overall average, and that in a side which has been routinely hammered by them. Thorpe is a player who likes a scrap: at his best, he is capable of dogged defence in a way that few of the current side have ever had to be. He is unlikely to be able to take apart the Australian attack in the way that Pietersen seems to promise to be able to, but that is precisely his virtue in this England side, I think. England already have a number of players capable of hammering a bowler out of the attack - Flintoff most obviously, but also Trescothick, and even Vaughan when he's in the mood - and they don't need any more players who will either blaze a hundred in a session or get out going for an expansive cover-drive or a hoik over midwicket: they need a player who will grit down and block out overs, gradually rebuilding, when England are 50-3, as they undoubtedly will be at a number of points in this series. Thorpe has proved time and time again that he is capable of doing this, and doing it against the kind of bowling attack which it would be suicide to try and take the game to in any serious way. Maybe Bell and Strauss are capable of doing that, but they haven't, yet, against Australia, and that's why he should be in the side, at least for the first Test.
I think the clamour for Pietersen speaks of an overconfidence in the England camp about this series, which hasn't been helped by the poor showing of Australia in the various one-day matches - not that I'd rather that they'd steam-rollered all-omers so far, but simply that the best Test side in the world do not suddenly become awful because they lost a few mickey-mouse internationals, and a tour match in which they were clearly taking the piss. Anyone who thinks that Australia aren't favourites for the coming series is fooling themselves: England haven't won a Test match against Australia other than in a dead rubber since June 1997, and Australia's recent record is even better than England's. It is going to be hard to beat them, and if England are going to win, they are going to have fight and fight hard. Even in the series which England have won recently, and apparently won comfortably, other than in South Africa, Thorpe's ability to grind out runs has been integral to England's success: the second innings century at Bridgetown, a similar effort against New Zealand at Nottingham, and another in the first innings at Old Trafford against the West Indies, are all excellent examples. England may well have lost these matches without Thorpe, and if they would have struggled without him at times against sides of the calibre of New Zealand and the West Indies, there is every reason to believe that they will miss him against Australia. Pietersen's time will come, perhaps, maybe even probably, later in the Ashes, but it should not be judged to be on the 21st of July at Lords.