Today Harry Eckersley gives his reaction to Key and McCullum’s first Test squad…
Anti-climactic would be one way to describe England’s latest Test squad announcement. With a new Managing Director, Head Coach and Captain in situ, the sense of anticipation was heightened. So much so, the ECB even used it as a data capture opportunity – a most fitting conclusion to the era of Harrison. Innovating, ideating and commercializing right to the bitter end. Come and have your first look at Brendan and Ben, our new avant-garde pairing. Just give us your email address first.
In reality, it was somewhat of a false start, met online with a universal groan of indifference. Aside from welcome call-ups for Matthew Potts and Harry Brook – just reward for fine performances in the County Championship – it was more of the same. Nothing to see here. A “Red Ball Resumption”, if you will.
In fairness, there is logic to the continuity. Giving the incumbents another opportunity is an exercise in basic fairness. The new hierarchy is entitled to have a proper look at what it already possesses before they delve into the growing pool of hopefuls burrowing away at the county level. Not least because Alex Lees, Ollie Pope and Ben Foakes have each enjoyed fruitful starts to their respective campaigns.
Nonetheless, Zak Crawley’s selection is altogether harder to comprehend. Not only does his continued presence in the squad make a mockery of the current selection criteria, it also must do untold damage to the motivation of those county players not being recognised for the volume of their early season runs.
What is that selection process, anyway? Is it pure aesthetics and the lure of Crawley’s chocolate box cover drive? Is he being picked on what he may become, rather than what he is now? Or is he simply benefitting from a form of neo-Cronyism? Key has not been shy of pumping Crawley’s tires up in the past.
But if not Crawley, then who?
Up until now, much of the debate has focused on the uncapped players missing out. Parkinson and Bohannon to name just two. But what of those who have represented England before? There’s a fertile pool here who are inexplicably being overlooked.
Understandably, there will be those who think that calling on the previously capped would represent a retrograde step. A new dawn calls for new players, with an injection of youthful exuberance and one eye on the future.
But, in his statements thus far, Rob Key has been clear that his focus is on the here and now – selecting the best XI currently available to him. That’s manna from heaven for England fans who had grown used to Silverwood and Co’s eternal future gazing.
“The best chance to win Test matches is by picking your 11 best players” said Key when asked about Broad and Anderson’s potential recall.
If that is to be believed, though, then there is a compelling case for the recall of any of Dom Sibley, James Vince, Keaton Jennings, Sam Robson and even Ben Duckett.
Since 2019, the first three each have a healthy looking average of above 42 in First-Class cricket, whilst the other two are just a fraction shy of that magical 40 mark. Robson already has two centuries under his belt this season, whilst Sibley carried his bat on his way to 142 against an elite Lancashire attack in early May.
In that same period, Crawley, in and out of the England side over the past three years, has averaged just 33 for Kent in the County Championship across more than 50 innings. Can Key confidently tell us that this is the best we have?
It would be interesting to know if these forgotten men are part of the conversation. And if not, why not? After all, this would hardly be new territory for England. Having spent time away ironing out deficiencies and reconfiguring their approach, Bairstow, Pope and Malan have all been successfully reintegrated at the international level. Haseeb Hameed was ushered back into the fold with great fanfare just last year, after a run of knocks at Notts that saw him averaging around 35.
It’s a situation made even more incomprehensible when you see the mental gymnastics now being carried out to restructure England’s top order. We’re now faced with a situation where Ollie Pope will bat at three, despite never having done so at the professional level, and Bairstow at five where he averages 27.
There are ready-made replacements who could alleviate the need for such tinkering. Bring Sibley or Robson in to open, and bat Vince at three, freeing up room for Pope to bat at 5. Better still, have Bairstow – with the gloves – at 7. Harsh on Foakes, certainly, but if Key is true to his word, his best England side would look something like the below:
Sibley, Lees, Vince, Root, Pope, Stokes, Bairstow, Overton, Broad, Leach, Anderson