Before Ed Smith picks his maiden Test squad in the coming hours, he is sure to have asked himself what the team’s aims are for the next few years.
Smith, England’s new national selector, has suddenly become one of the most powerful men in English cricket. With none of Joe Root (England’s Test captain), Paul Farbrace (England’s assistant coach) or Andy Flower (the England Lions coach) officially selectors – though they will surely be consulted – and Trevor Bayliss simply too busy to get around the counties as he would like, the onus of selection falls on one man more than it has for some time. Yes, Angus Fraser and Mick Newell continue to provide their thoughts, but it is Smith who will pick his own deputy and Smith who appears to have been given more power than his predecessor, James Whitaker.
And Smith’s problem – one of his problems – is that planning for the future could compromise England’s short-term aspirations. So while he is naturally keen to win this summer’s home series against Pakistan (who drew with England on their last trip) and India (who look far better equipped than they were on their last visit), he will also have an eye to the future and a determination to improve their current Test ranking of fifth.
If England are content with home success then their current formula requires little tinkering. Armed with Dukes balls and surfaces that help their seamers, they are a formidable side. There is a home Ashes series little more than a year away and, in the past, that milestone has blinded everything beyond it.
But if Smith’s ambitions are greater – and they surely are – his thoughts will extend beyond the English summer. He will know that, to reach the top of the Test rankings, they must improve their grim away record. They have not won any of their last 13 Tests away from home and, in both India and Australia, the limitations of their bowling tactics – which is basically to bowl tight and wait for errors – has been shown-up by flat pitches and high-quality opposition with the hunger to bat all week. If England keep fielding four right-arm, fast-medium seamers – especially the same four right-arm, fast-medium seamers – that is unlikely to change. They need more variation. They need more pace. They need better spin. And they need to plan for life after James Anderson and Stuart Broad.
That’s not to say that Anderson – aged 35 but still England’s best bowler – and Broad – aged 31 but bowling better than he has for some time – should be dropped. Far from it; they should be savoured. But it does mean that, in the coming weeks and months, Smith needs to find a way to introduce new players with a view to the challenges beyond the next two series. Players who can unlock good batting line-ups on the surfaces expected in India. Bowlers who can get something out of the surfaces expected in Australia. Players who can revel in the spin-friendly conditions expected in Sri Lanka and the Caribbean. Bowlers with the pace or skill to shape games rather than try to suffocate them.
Such players are out there. While the likes of Sam Curran and Olly Stone are not the finished articles – batsman who have faced Stone in recent weeks talk of a sharp variation in pace which might be due to a tendency to lose his action at times – they have the potential to make a difference. Josh Tongue, too, is one to keep an eye upon. It would be stretching a point to compare him to Glenn McGrath but there is just a hint of that sort of bowler about the way he hammers a length that challenges the top of off stump and the outside edge. This squad probably comes too soon for all of them, but they may well represent the future.
Dominic Bess and Amar Virdi could play a part soon, too. The two offspinners, aged 20 and 19 respectively, might have anticipated a summer learning their trade in the county game. But now, with Mason Crane and Jack Leach injured and Moeen Ali having not bowled a red ball in anger since he was dropped in New Zealand, there may be an opportunity to accelerate their promotion. Matt Parkinson, the 21-year-old legspinner from Lancashire, might be an outside bet, too.
In the short-term it seems Mark Wood, Chris Woakes and Craig Overton are probably vying for the final place in the seam attack. All are fine cricketers. But expecting Wood to play three or four Tests in a row despite all the evidence to the contrary seems optimistic, while Woakes – with a home Test bowling average of 24.28 (even better than Anderson’s) and an away-Test bowling average of 61.77 – might provide a microcosm of England’s issues. Overton looked as if he had the temperament but not the pace in Australia. There might be room for one of Curran, Stone or Tongue to replace them.
Smith’s main choice, at first glance at least, might be whether to stick or twist with two of England’s top-order. The case of James Vince, for example, offers one of the more problematic selection quandaries of recent times. In his 13 Tests to date Vince has shown he has plenty of time for the ball and plenty of shots to prosper at the top level. The one thing he does not have – as an average of 24.90 shows – is plenty of runs. The sense remains that, with a bit more time, he will surely come good and his double century against Somerset may be very well timed. There will be generations of former England players wishing they had been given such patience, however, and with Joe Clarke scoring runs in a struggling team, Vince will know he really does need to reward the faith shown in him almost immediately.
Mark Stoneman, too, has looked the part at times. But a top-score of 60 after 10 Tests is disappointing and the fact he has made such an unpersuasive start to the season – he has failed to reach 30 in seven innings – will have done him few favours. Nick Gubbins, a fine player of pace but with something to prove against spin, may well become Alastair Cook’s latest partner; the 13th since Andrew Strauss retired.
The struggles of his opening partners – Stoneman, Alex Hales, Adam Lyth et al. – has shifted attention from Cook. But his recent record – he has reached 40 only once in his last 17 Test innings – is modest and, if there is a temptation to retain him with a view to next year’s Ashes, it might be noted that his averages in the three previous Ashes series held in England are 24.66, 27.70 and 36.66.
It is to Cook’s advantage that potential rivals for his spot – the likes of Haseeb Hameed and Ben Duckett – have endured horrid starts to the season. His long-term record makes a compelling case for his retention, too, while the the fact that Smith defended Cook’s place in the ODI team even after he was dropped just ahead of the 2015 World Cup suggests he will be reluctant to make such a change. Cook is more vulnerable than he has been for some time, though. Rory Burns, benefiting from the relatively flat Oval surfaces, and Keaton Jennings are among those waiting in the wings.
Ben Foakes is pressing for selection, too. There’s no doubt he is a fine keeper, perhaps the best in the English game now that James Foster is 38, and an accomplished batsman. But to take the gloves off Jonny Bairstow now would be odd reward on several years’ investment and offers uncertain rewards in terms of the effect on his batting.
There are other options for various positions. James Hildreth, at 33, is now regularly scoring runs under pressure and could provide three or four years’ service, while Samit Patel, also 33 and a fine player of spin and an increasingly reliable left-arm spinner, might also be an asset over the next 12-months on the surfaces anticipated in Sri Lanka and the Caribbean. Selectors often favour potential over maturity but perhaps Smith may prove different.
Possible Lord’s XI Alastair Cook, Nick Gubbins, Joe Root, James Vince/Joe Clarke, Dawid Malan, Ben Stokes, Jonny Bairstow, Mark Wood/Chris Woakes, Dom Bess, James Anderson, Stuart Broad