Alastair Cook is grappling with a vexed tale of two brilliant bowlers – one absent for the Lord’s Test which starts today; the other controversially present.
Mohammad Amir’s return to the Home of Cricket, for his first Test since the spot-fixing crisis of 2010, will overshadow the start of England’s four-match Investec series against Pakistan.
But it is a measure of James Anderson’s importance to the hosts that rumblings over the reasons he is missing – and whether England could have taken a gamble on his recovery from a stress fracture of his shoulder blade – outdid the inevitable questions about Amir at the captain’s press conference.
Cook was doubtless primed for his latest interrogation about the rights and wrongs of left-armer Amir’s rehabilitation and consequent revisiting of the scene of his crime.
He spent more time, however, explaining England’s cautious approach to the injury which means their all-time leading wicket-taker will have to wait until his home Test in Manchester next week to join forces in this series.
According to a national newspaper report yesterday, England’s selectors were divided on whether Anderson should play and talks became heated, with coach Trevor Bayliss pushing for his inclusion but James Whitaker, Angus Fraser and Mick Newell against him being involved.
Without him, Cook will deploy debutant Jake Ball alongside the novice’s Nottinghamshire team-mate Stuart Broad – with Steven Finn and Chris Woakes completing the seam attack.
Anderson and England’s pivotal all-rounder Ben Stokes appeared in fine fettle in the Lord’s nets – but both must wait for their turn as they recover from injury.
Cook confirmed the decision to hold Anderson back was a close call, saying: “Of course, there is always a temptation to take that gamble.
“With 450 wickets and the skill he has got ... (the selectors) talked about it a lot.”
Anderson’s injury sounds alarming, for anyone whose job it is to bowl at 80mph plus – but it is its rareness which has convinced England to take things slowly.
Cook added: “It’s one I don’t think many people have had.
“So there’s a little bit of a doubt about it, and the selectors have decided it’s too much of a risk to go for it.
“There are three other games, and he should be fit for Old Trafford.”
England are broadly encouraged that Anderson himself appears to believe he might have been fit in time – after stark initial indications.
“When it first happened, the scan results were slightly worrying,” said Cook.
“He has recovered quite quickly from it.”
The captain was prepared to defer to England’s selectors, and backs their judgement.
“He was fairly confident – but chatting to him, he does understand the situation,” Cook added.
“If (he had played, and) it had flared up, he would have looked quite silly. So I can understand the selectors not wanting to take a risk with it. That is their job. They pick the side.”
Marshalling his bowling resources is one critical task – but depending on the outcome of the toss, combating Amir may be Cook’s first match-defining priority.
To that end, he is adamant England’s batsmen must make sure they play the ball and not the bowler, his notorious back story or the reaction of the crowd at the sight of Amir plying his trade again on the very ground where he transgressed and was subsequently punished with a jail term and five-year ban from all cricket.
“One thing we have spoken about – whether it’s Amir, (Wahab) Riaz, it’s the same red ball coming down at you,” said Cook.
“You can easily be distracted, certainly in a big series where it gets hyped up.
“But it takes you away from the most important thing – which is, you as a batter, that ball coming down.
“Are you prepared for it mentally? So you try and block out all that external stuff. We are very good when we do that.”
Cook was required to reiterate his personal stance on Amir’s return – and dutifully did so.
“I’ve said all along I don’t think match-fixers should be allowed to play – but at that time he was given his punishment,” added Cook.
“He’s served it, so he’s absolutely entitled to come back.
“One thing not in question with Mohammad Amir is that he is a decent bowler.
“He does not get a wicket every time he bowls a ball, so we have to be careful not to build him up in our own minds – but we know how skilful he is.
“There are 10 other players and four other bowlers we have to focus on.”
Pakistan captain Misbah-ul-Haq, meanwhile, has urged Amir to win over the cricket world when he makes his Test return.
“His mood is good,” said Misbah. “He’s just focusing on what he has to do in the ground.
“He is really responding well to that and I hope it’s a big opportunity for him, and that he comes on to the field and performs for Pakistan, to win the people over again.
“At the moment there are no worries for us in terms of Mohammad Amir.”