Steven Finn v Tim Bresnan
England's selectors face a difficult choice between the reliability and run-making potential of Bresnan and the explosive pace of Finn
Three Tests ago, Yorkshire allrounder Tim Bresnan celebrated his man-of-the-match performance against the West Indies with the words: 'Consistency is my major weapon'. He had just taken eight wickets and scored 39 not out, a typically valuable but understated performance.
A solid batting average of 39 and a bowling average of 28.12 in 15 Tests back up Bresnan's claim to consistency. He has also been something of a lucky charm for England, who won the first 13 Tests he played in and didn't lose with Bresnan in the team until the debacle against South Africa at The Oval.
When you consider Bresnan's overall record and the fact that he must be champing at the bit to have a crack at South Africa on his home turf, you’d think he was a shoo-in.
But the England selectors – for all that they love to give players a fair crack of the whip – can also be ruthless. The dropping of fast bowler Steven Finn during the 2010-2011 Ashes is the most obvious example. Finn was England’s leading wicket-taker after three Test matches, but he was axed in favour of Bresnan.
Ironically, that decision could be reversed now, with Finn replacing a seemingly in-form Bresnan. The decision to bring in Finn instead of Bresnan would be based on the need for more pace and aggression to blast out the dogged and patient South African batting line-up. England's attack looked rather one-paced by comparison with Dale Steyn, Morkel and Philander at The Oval.
Bresnan, in particular, has been so focused on accuracy this summer that he has rarely bowled faster than 82 mph, which is a good yard slower than he bowled last year.
But it is not an easy decision to make because both Bresnan and Finn are fine players with different qualities. There are strong arguments on both sides.
The reason Finn was dropped in Australia was he was considered too expensive. No one doubted his wicket-taking capacity but the two Andys wanted more control, which Bresnan provided.
But that argument has less potency now. Firstly, because South Africa are a much stronger side than Australia and, therefore, a game of patience might be much less effective.
And, more importantly, because Finn has developed a great deal as a bowler. The Middlesex man’s swift rise in the past six months to number five in the ODI world rankings is evidence of his greater control of line and length. But what makes him such an irresistible prospect, is that the control has come alongside even greater pace.
England's fitness training has beefed up Finn's physique as it did Stuart Broad's. But unlike Broad, Finn’s extreme pace is a natural result of his action. Nothing is forced. His rhythm coming into the crease is that of a thoroughbred fast bowler.
In the ODIs against Australia, Finn was the quickest bowler on either side, regularly topping 90 mph. That was a good two yards faster than England’s two quickest bowlers – Broad and Anderson - during The Oval Test match. Finn’s inclusion at Headingley would arm England with a faster bowler than either Steyn or Morkel.
But the decision to play Finn, or Bresnan, is complicated by considerations about the overall make-up of the England attack.
Bresnan is able to bowl reverse-swing with the old ball and keep it tight while Finn is more of a strike bowler with the new ball.
One solution would be to revert to the ODI setup, with Finn and Anderson opening the bowling and Broad bowling the middle overs. Broad can fulfill either role. He is a remarkably versatile bowler who possesses many of Bresnan’s skills.
For all the arguments in favour of Finn, there are counter-arguments for Bresnan’s inclusion which may tip the scales in his favour. Firstly, Bopara has opted out of the game, which brings in 22-year-old Test debutant James Taylor at number six. The selectors may, therefore, feel more secure in retaining Bresnan for his batting prowess (though how much more faith they would have had in Ravi Bopara is anybody’s guess).
A more powerful argument is that Headingley has traditionally favoured swing bowlers. In the end, the weather forecast for Leeds of cloud and showers may be Bresnan’s trump card. But, if he is picked, he will need a good performance to prevent Finn returning at his home ground of Lord’s for the final Test.