The curious events around the global sporting calendar thrown up by COVID-19 have offered us all a break. It comes at you thick and fast, especially the cricketing calendar, so an opportunity to hit the pause button and enjoy a bit of time away from it all has been welcome. Yet, as England prepare to return to action in a Test series against the West Indies, the same old questions have been thrown up, even with a new look cast of cricketers.
We look through the major questions facing Ed Smith and his selection panel as the first Test approaches on 8 July.
What’s England’s best top order?
Surprisingly, given England’s search for an opening partner for Alastair Cook was never satisfactorily resolved in the wake of Andrew Strauss’s 2012 retirement, this looks like a bastion of stability in the England ranks. Rory Burns has done enough in his 15 Tests to suggest he’s worth persevering with, and Dominic Sibley enjoyed a comfortable enough winter to feel assured of a run in the side.
That moves the debate onto the number three spot. Joe Denly did a sterling job in eating up deliveries over the winter, more often than not facing 100+ balls per innings. He struggled, however, to convert his starts into meaningful scores. Whilst he lacked runs, he did provide stability and was incredibly useful in drawing the venom out of South Africa’s attack.
Zak Crawley enjoyed an encouraging enough start to life at the top of the order and surely has a Test future ahead of him. With all options fit and available, however, he might not be in the strongest XI
What to do with Joe Root?
The skipper’s place in the order is crucial in determining who plays through the middle order. There has long been a temptation to bat Root at three. It has been tried on numerous occasions but never quite worked. He averages 38 batting at three; 50 batting at four.
The question keeps popping up though. Play Root at three and England can hand a debut to Essex youngster Dan Lawrence, who has scored enough runs for England Lions and his county to merit a closer look at the top table.
I would leave Root at four, it’s where he does his best work and he’s England’s best batsman. It’s probably asking too much of Lawrence to step in at three now. Ed Smith did hand Ollie Pope his Test debut out of position at four and loves a square peg for a round hole, so it can’t quite be ruled out.
The middle order
Root at four. Ben Stokes at five. Pope at six. There’s nothing else to say.
Who keeps wicket?
That neither Jos Buttler nor Jonny Bairstow has been able to nail this position down tells you everything you need to know. World class white ball performers both are; world class Test performers neither are. Buttler has played 41 Tests, averages 31.74 and has once century. Bairstow has played 70 Tests, averages 34.74 and has six centuries.
Neither deserves a place on batting merit. Bairstow said recently that he thought he hadn’t done much wrong before getting dropped. Other than scoring no runs and getting bowled all the time, it’s hard to argue with him.
It’s time for Ben Foakes to come back in and have a run with the gloves. He’s a vastly superior keeper to either Buttler or Bairstow and has as many Test centuries as Buttler. With sights on winning the World T20, it’s time to let the world class white ball players focus on that.
Who is the spinner?
For all Jack Leach’s cult hero status, he hasn’t pulled up too many trees with the ball, famous instead for scoring 92 against Ireland at Lord’s and 1* against Australia at Headingley. Only 10 Tests in, however, he has shown that he is probably England’s best spinner right now. And yet… the Moeen Ali question never went away. Ali was dropped during the Ashes last summer but is back in the reckoning now. He has a very good record in England and his elegant batting is a Siren call Smith appears unable to resist steering his ship towards.
Dom Bess performed better than most expected in South Africa and is in the frame, but England are unlikely to go with two spinners at home, meaning that he is unlikely to feature. Matt Parkinson, who was in England’s touring squads over the winter, was overlooked when Leach got injured and England instead chose to fly Bess in to South Africa. That doesn’t augur well for Parkinson. Amar Virdi, the excitable Surrey off spinner is the other name in the squad. It’s difficult to see him featuring now, but he must be a consideration for an upcoming tour of India. It is perhaps a bold shout, but I expect him to rise to the top of England’s spin rankings soon.
Stuart Broad and James Anderson will play. That’s a given. With Stokes adding another seam option where needed, that leaves one spot open in the side. There’s plenty of competition for it, too.
Jofra Archer is the favourite to take it. Getting more red ball cricket into him now looks the best option for his development. Chris Woakes, Sam Curran and Mark Wood have all impressed in Test cricket at various stages, but Archer is the gun bowler.
Looking to the future, England’s bowling looks well stocked. That they could afford to leave out Curran, Woakes and Wood hints at this, but there are also some interesting names in the squad. Craig Overton and Olly Stone have Test experience already, with Saqib Mahmood and Lewis Greggory having seen limited overs action. Craig’s twin, Jamie Overton, has long been on England’s radar, only to be held back by injury. If he is over the worst of those troubles, his searing pace is another weapon in England’s armoury.
So, there are some familiar questions facing England ahead of the first Test on 8 July. Will Ed Smith fall for the fatal attraction of familiar faces, or is now the time for England to take a slightly different direction in key positions?
It’s a strong looking squad, with the potential to forge an exciting future. My fear is that we will see the tried and tested return and England won’t pick their best players. Your move, Ed.