England's test team selection conundrum
Having beaten Sri Lanka two nil in their first away tour for almost exactly a year, England now face the daunting prospect of a four-test tour to India, which is considered one of the toughest in test cricket. Going into this series, England will see the return of Rory Burns, Ben Stokes, and Jofra Archer, with Jonny Bairstow, Sam Curran and Jos Buttler all being rested for the first two tests of this series, but Jos Buttler likely to be rested after the 1st test. As well as a 16-man squad, Joe Root’s England will also take 6 reserves with them, in case of any injuries or any positive Covid cases.
England squad for first two tests (BBC Sport):
Joe Root, Jofra Archer, Moeen Ali, Dom Bess, Stuart Broad, Rory Burns, Jos Buttler, James Anderson, Zak Crawley, Ben Foakes, Dan Lawrence, Ben Stokes, Jack Leach, Dom Sibley, Chris Woakes and Olly Stones.
Reserves: James Bracey, Mason Crane, Saqib Mahmood, Matthew Parkinson, Ollie Robinson, and Amir Virdi.
Top of the order
England have found filling the opening spots in the batting order quite tricky over the last few years and was exacerbated following the retirement of Sir Alastair Cook in 2018, and have experimented with several different batsmen, including Keaton Jennings, Rory Burns, Jason Roy, Joe Denly, Dom Sibley, and Zak Crawley. In the recent Sri Lanka series, Dom Sibley and Zak Crawley opened the batting due to Rory Burns being on paternity leave, with Dom Sibley showing some weakness to playing against spin and Zak Crawley trying to be proactive in his approach by getting down the pitch when playing the spinner by also getting out cheaply at times. Rory Burns has been a constant in opening the batting since Cook’s retirement, but has had a few issues facing spin himself, getting out several times to Roston Chase from the West Indies since his debut, but did get runs out of Nathan Lyon during the 2019 Ashes. It is likely that Burns comes straight into the team for the first test in Chennai, with both Crawley and Sibley keeping their places but would see Crawley drop back to number 3 with Jonny Bairstow being rested for the first two tests.
Joe Root was in unbelievable form in Sri Lanka, scoring a double hundred in the first test, and another 186 runs in the first innings of the second test. Root is undoubtedly England’s best player of spin, using the sweep and reverse sweep with almost maximum reward in both of his monster innings, with tiredness being a main cause for his dismissal in the first innings of the second test. Root will want to keep up this brilliant form continue to score a lot of runs whilst trying to lead his team to a series win in India, whilst also baring in mind that he is now 4th in the all-time England run scorers in test cricket, having overtaken Kevin Pietersen, Geoffrey Boycott and David Gower during the Sri Lanka series.
It is extremely likely that Root will be followed and backed up by the return of full-time vice-captain Ben Stokes, who is most likely to step in straight at number 5 in the batting order. After a strong 2019 and 2020, Stokes will want to step back into the test fold with runs immediately, and with being England’s best all-rounder, he will want to contribute with the ball as well, seeing as Joe Root tends to throw the ball to him when he needs a wicket if the pitch is not giving anything away. However, with the IPL, a full home schedule, a world T20 and the Ashes round the corner, England will not want to be as reliant on Stokes to produce his magic than they have in the past and looked after one of their best players ready for all these future tournaments and series.
The wicketkeeper and other batsmen
Another issue England has, is whether they are going to revert to the wicketkeeper batting at 7 due to Ben Stokes being back in the team, or are they going to continue with Jos Buttler and Foakes (from the 2nd test onwards) batting at 6 to continue and play an extra bowler, which is most likely to be an extra spinner due to Chennai’s spinning pitches. If Buttler does bat at 6 in the first test, then it is likely that Dan Lawrence drops out, even though he contributed to the run scoring in the first test and looked comfortable whilst playing against spin. Another option with keeping Lawrence in the squad is that he could potentially go up to number 3 if the Root and the coaches decide to rest either Zak Crawley or Dom Sibley later in the series. Another consideration that England are making is about the selection of Ollie Pope into the squad if he proves his fitness and recovering from a shoulder injury, which would give extra competition to Dan Lawrence for a place in the team, as Ollie Pope is favoured by the selectors, playing most games throughout 2020 before getting injured, which included scoring his maiden test century in the 3rd test against South Africa in January.
Going back to the wicketkeeping dilemma, it has been said by Ed Smith the national selector that Jos Buttler will go home after the first test, meaning Ben Foakes will keep in the second test. This gives Ben Foakes his first opportunity in test cricket since being dropped after the disastrous West Indies tour at the start of 2019. Foakes will need to perform though, with reserve keeper James Bracey waiting in the wings for a potential opportunity and must also bear in mind about the possibility of a recall for Jonny Bairstow in the 3rd and 4th tests. Having James Bracey travel as a reserve as the only reserve batsman in the list of 6 can also be a way of covering for one of the opening batsmen in case of injury or positive Covid cases, as Bracey opens the batting for his county Gloucestershire and is one of the reasons to be selected as a reserve in the first place at the start of the summer in 2020.
The rest and rotation of the fast bowlers is going to be crucial to ensuring everyone stays fit ready for the Ashes down under later in the year. England will be wanting to go to Australia with a large group of fit fast bowlers, accompanied by some spinners who are confident and in-form. This is one of the reasons why Jofra Archer has been recalled to the squad, but Mark Wood has been rested for the first two tests.
England will be keeping an eye on all of their fast bowlers and seamers leading up to the Ashes, a series Joe Root will be desperate to win after missing out in 2019 and losing 4-0 in 2017-18. Managing fitness whilst wanting to play the best team possible to win the double series against India will be crucial, as all of Mark Wood, Jofra Archer and Olly Stone have had serious injury problems in the past, with Archer picking up a stress fracture in the elbow in the recent away tour of South Africa, and Olly Stone suffering from multiple stress fractures in the back. Having both picked up wickets in Sri Lanka, somewhere not known for seamers to take wickets, Joe Root will be hoping both James Anderson and Stuart Broad will continue their form into the India away series, but whilst also managing their workload before the home series against the Indians. It is unknown whether England’s leading all time wicket takers will play in the same XI in Chennai for the first two tests, but they could do in the 3rd and 4th test in Ahmedabad, but this dependent on the pitches being used which could extremely spinner friendly. Anderson and Broad are likely to play most of the home matches against India and New Zealand, as they are the best in home conditions, which will also give Sam Curran another opportunity when the ball is swinging in England’s back yard.
Another area which will be examined from the get-go in India is the spinners which England use during the series. It is likely that Dom Bess and Jack Leach will continue to operate after a successful tour of Sri Lanka but depending on the conditions in Chennai and how much turn it could potentially produce, England may opt to go with Moeen Ali as the extra spinner and go against playing one of the fast bowlers. Having not played test cricket since the first ashes test of 2019, Moeen Ali will want to prove his ability on the test scene again after taking time out of the longer formats of the game and only playing limited overs cricket over the last year. The three mainline spinners will want to deliver quite early in the series due to the reserve spinners on the tour, with the 2 leg spinners of Matt Parkinson and Mason Crane adding a potential different threat if they are picked at all during the series. As it looks like Adil Rashid will not be putting himself in the mix for test selection despite his white ball form, Parkinson and Crane will be wanting to show that England do in-fact need a leg spinner in their XI to test the Indian batsmen and potentially be an option for the Ashes tour.
The IPL this year is proving to be a big headache for most international teams, with this being no exception for England. Chris Silverwood and Joe Root are trying to manage their team’s fitness not just for their test schedule, but also in preparation for the world t20 in India later in the year. After the India series, a chunk of the England squad will be staying in India for the latest edition of the IPL, with Jonny Bairstow, Sam Curran, Jos Buttler, Ben Stokes and Jofra Archer all predicted to play in the tournament again not long after the most recent tournament finished and stay in the bubble life for longer instead of returning to England to rest and recuperate before the start of a hectic summer. George Dobell from ESPNcricinfo summarised to say that the England coaches and selectors are almost resigned to let these players go to the IPL again in one of the busiest years for quite some time. Despite the concerns over fitness, mental wellbeing due to the stresses of bubble life and limited resting time, England will feel there will be some reward from allowing these players to play in the IPL.
As Dobell summarised, the England players get to play with and against some of the best t20 players in the world and will want these players to share their experiences with the rest of the team when it comes to the world t20. Another reason why England will want their best t20 players to play in the IPL is that they are currently number one in the world t20 rankings and are likely to be one of the favourites for the upcoming tournament, so will want every player they pick to be at the top of their game to live up to the favourites tag like they did in the 50 over world cup they won on home soil in 2019.
England will want to try and pick the best XI possible from the players at their disposal all the way up until the ashes in late 2021. Even though England will want to rest players and rotate throughout the summer, Joe Root and his team will need to know what their best XI is going to be ready for that first Ashes test in November so will need to field the strongest team possible in the games that matter throughout the summer, with the games against India home and away being crucial in deciding which players will fit into this XI. In regard to the IPL, England will be monitoring every game in which one of their players features, looking at both form and fitness, but will unlikely try to interfere with the IPL franchises in case they feel that one of their players needs time out before the start of a hectic summer. Allowing these key players to play in the IPL does have a large element of risk and reward, with the potential reward appearing to be a successful campaign in the world t20, as those who featured in the last tournament will want to avenge their final defeat against the West Indies in 2016.