Ed Smith, the new chairman of England selectors, was widely expected to spring a surprise or two in his first Test. After a wretched winter of discontent, followed by hubris then bizarre admissions of defeat about the state of the game and the formats that need to be played by an increasingly hapless looking ECB, there was a keen interest in Smith’s first squad announcement.
The first England Test squad of the summer is always the subject of debate. That’s how it should be. James Vince, who had stated a firm case for retaining his spot with a 201* for Hampshire on Monday, was dropped, but he can have few complaints. He was given an opportunity to make the number three slot his own over the winter and simply did not take it. A pretty batsman, he’s one for the aesthetes rather than those who want to see a winning England team.
Moeen Ali, too, has been discarded. Again, this is no real surprise. After 50 Tests, it was not clear what Ali’s role was. Was he England’s main spinner? A pillar of their batting? An opener? A number three? Everything in between?
A disastrous Ashes tour left him sulking about the state of Test cricket; decrying a lack of interest during the best attended Ashes series in history. He leaves with a batting average of 32 and a bowling average of 41. Hardly convincing figures for an all-rounder.
So, the spinning berth moves on to Somerset’s right arm off spinner, Dom Bess. Whilst he represents a gamble – any 20 year old with only 16 first class games to his name would – there weren’t many options. Amar Virdi at Surrey is probably the best spinner in the country right now on form, but he’s 19 and it’s very early doors in his career; he’s played only seven first class games. It is for Bess, too, and he’s another spinner debuting in tricky circumstances who probably won’t get much of a bowl in the first Test against Pakistan at Lord’s. In fact, I’d be slightly surprised if they pick him at all, opting instead for five seamers with Root and/or Malan chipping in with a few overs where necessary.
Jack Leach, Bess’s Somerset team mate, was unfortunate to injure himself, but is he still England’s number one? Mason Crane, the Hampshire leggie leggie thrown in during tumultuous times only to return figures of 1/193, looks set to be a one cap wonder, at least for the time being. He’s still young and is currently injured, but it already looks a long way back up the pecking order for re man.
England’s most successful spinning combo in recent years has been right and left arm off spin in India in 2012. With tours of Sri Lanka and the West Indies looming, I would expect Leach to return and will it be an all Somerset affair for England on their travels? But at what price comes Bess’s inclusion, given England’s recent selections of young spinners Simon Kerrigan (now semi-retired), Scott Borthwick (now a batsman), Zafar Ansari (now retired) and Crane (now forgotten)? It’s a calculated gamble by Smith and his colleagues.
Then there’s Jos Buttler. I just don’t understand the obsession with him in Test cricket. Why does he need Test cricket to validate his talent in the eyes of the selectors and fans? He’s a magnificent player – a magnificent white ball player. There’s no shame in that! What is the cost of this move to his ODI form, where he is an absolutely vital cog in a currently well oiled machine?
He played four first class games in 2017 and averaged 17. He has consistently failed in Test cricket because he doesn’t play first class cricket. Opening with a flourish in Jaipur, in a T20, is not a signal that he will ably prop up a wobbly Test batting order against a Dukes ball at Lord’s in May. If you set people up to fail, generally they will fail. It’s an extraordinary and unnecessary gamble.
Buttler has played 18 Tests and averages 31. He’s a stunning player to watch and England are very fortunate to have him, but do they really need a specialist number seven and do they really need to crowbar him into the Test set-up?
And what does it say to Ben Foakes? He toured all winter, went back to Surrey and piled on the runs, then gets axed. Or why not give the slot to Joe Clarke? A player of prodigious talent, with a 150 to his name already this season, could he not have been given the summer at five? Ollie Pope and Rory Burns have been in fine fettle, too. I would have understood an investment in the future, which there was a sensible opportunity to take, but I do not get this backward looking obsession with a repeated failure in Test cricket.
Buttler has been set up to fail here. So don’t be surprised if he does. Again.
By Miles Reucroft