Back to the Future: What England’s Real Best XI Looks Like

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

Harry Eckersley


  • Sibley, really? I don’t think so. But I’d pursue with Lees and bring Burns back whose as good as anyone here bar Root and Stokes. And come on you must play your best keeper in Foakes whose batting average is comparable, and not fall back in the Bairstow trap which fails every time. Overton yes, but Jamie rather than Craig, who has been superb for Surrey in batting as well as bowling very fast. Leach can contain but he’s not a 5-for man. Time Parkinson was given a well deserved go.
    This selection by Key doesn’t really convince me he has much idea of the current County game.

  • Surely if we are selecting the best 11 on first class form then Potts would feature as leading wicket taker and Foakes would keep his place as according to many observers he is the best wicket keeper.

  • The problem for Key is he’s consistently been an advocate of Crawley in the past and has created a rod for his own back there. Will have to reserve judgment until after the 1st 2 tests but I’ve never been an advocate of finding your form in the test arena or messing with batting orders. It’s like picking a defender and putting him in midfield, it fills a gap but doesn’t exactly worry the opposition. It doesn’t make cricketing sense to me. I’m sure New Zealand will be quite happy to see Crawley and Pope in our top 3 and look forward to getting Root in early. Still good to see Anderson and Broad back, though one wonders if they would have been selected were it not for the increasingly worrying list of early season injuries on the bowling front. One has to ask what is wrong with today’s athletes, with all the scientific research at their disposal they still seem to go down with injuries so regularly. Is it the modern frame, training practices or technique. It needs looking into.
    All the great teams arrive at consistent selection, pretty much irrespective of form. It’s always difficult to drop iconic players. On the other hand you need to provide incentive for those playing well at club level to graduate. For me we need a much stronger England Lions set up as a proving ground for emerging talent. At present there’s not enough fixtures or organised development there to gain the significant experience.

    • Good point about the ‘A’ team (2nd XI) programme. There was a nice article on CricInfo recently arguing this is a key to long term success

  • There a a number of batsmen who have shown good form this season, Bohannon, Robson, Haines, and others. If Key says the England team should be the best available, then how are Crawley or Bairstow anywhere near the team. Bairstow can’t even be bothered to play in the County Championship!

  • Stokes batting at No.6? Don’t you know that it is decreed by statute he must bat at No.5? Even mere discussion of him batting anywhere else will cause the white cliffs of Dover to crumble!

    More seriously, CC runs are entertaining to talk about but irrelevant to the issue because the ECB hold their own product in ill-disguised contempt. Key and McCullum are not a duo to change that.

    There’s zero chance of Sibley being recalled because England must play entertaining Test cricket or the format will die. That’s according to BMac. Getting skittled for 150 in 35 overs will be a selfless sacrifice for the good of Test cricket – and not part of the shift to white-ballism, pandering to short attention spans of mythical audiences and saving money on Day Fives. Of course I’d like a Test team that could blast 400 at 5RPO but given where England are, maybe a bit of knuckling down first might be in order? Entertainment must be earnt – but the ECB want unearned thrills.

    • Sign of the times I’m afraid Simon. Every form of entertainment caters to immediate gratification. I’m not sure the present up and coming generation has the wherewithal to appreciate the unrivalled drama of test cricket. They’ve been brainwashed by the marketing men into believing there’s only one formula to everything and that involves the accompaniment of new technology.
      My other love is cinema and that displays these things perfectly. Every year of this century the top grossing films have been franchise formulas with their ever more sophisticated tech and ever more banal comic book style screenplays. It’s difficult to see a way of reversing the trend to create a more civilised balance.

  • Vince? No way. He’s been tried out and failed too many times – lots of pretty 20s and 30s and then gets out. The selectors have rightly moved on from him.

    • What we would give for a pretty 20 or 30 now rather than the disgusting efforts we have witnessed in more recent time. VINCE has class, style, elegance all over him. Can anybody honestly tell me they would rather watch Burns
      , Sibley, Lawrence and company.
      Cricket is an entertainment and should be a thing of beauty

  • Wouldnt be surprised if England win handily, or at least 1-0 to be honest. NZ have been a bit ‘off’ (home series against SA and Bangladesh were dismal), havent played first class cricket for some time, Williamson is troubled by his elbow, IPL is competing for time (the compromise NZ had to make to reward its players well).

    And there is the ‘energy’ from a new start, a new coach and a *possible* new era. Teams can flatter to deceive after a ‘relaunch’, especially if a debutant or two are not well known by the opposition.

    The levels of confidence are surprisingly low amongst NZ fans. We just have a history of our team not being very good, in our DNA, its hard to shrug.

  • Why is Compton not mentioned in dispatches? His form is as good as any at the moment.
    Zac Crawley is a future captain, that’s why Key is is keen on keeping him on.
    Surprised at no Malan, I get the impression that England have never really liked him. Not sure why, something in the dressing room I’d say. He’s got the toughness that is much needed.

  • No mention of Lawrence? I guess if he hadn’t tweaked a hamstring he’d have been in the team as the incumbent instead of Brook. Hadn’t ripped up any trees this season but a fine century yesterday. There’s something about him that merits sticking with at test level.

  • I think Crawley is being picked on potential rather than current form. I wonder how far potential will take him when facing the
    World Test Champions. I think it is too early to pick Ben Compton, although he has really shown up Crawley’s lack of early season form. I am mystified why England have seemingly given up on Dawid Malan and batting Pope at no 3 has disaster written all over it. It is a sad state of affairs that, due to the fragility of the English young seam bowlers, we have to rely on a 39 year old and a 36 year old to lead our attack.

  • As things stand it feels a bit like Pope is being crowbarred in on the basis 5 and 6 are already taken. It feels odd to discuss potentially leaving him out but, even if Bairstow was dropped, Brook is a more deserving candidate of the no. 5 position than Pope. Stokes and Root will be at 4 and 6 one assumes which is hard to argue with.

    Retaining Crawley makes sense I feel but the squad clearly needs another proper opener. I’d have been tempted to give Ryan Patel a whirl.

    As a Durham lad I’m delighted for Potts. I hope he rips it up.

      • Agree trouble is, Root aside, England has numbers 4 & 5 coming out of their ears, but no settled top 3 or indeed anyone who looks capable of doing it. I would not have Crawley near the Test side let alone open which he clearly can’t. Pope is best at 5 or 6, ask Surrey Key! With our openers he’ll be coming in in the second over. Another disaster here waiting to happen. I’m going to put a bet on this side to continue to be around 30/3.

        • In fairness, Pope has batted at 4 in every game he’s played (all but 1) for Surrey this season and done well. So it’s not like he’s being yanked completely out of position. Albeit I do accept there is a subtle difference between 3 and 4. I also can’t shake the feeling that he should probably have more than the one ton so far given he’s got himself in in all innings so far (second innings v Somerset aside).

          One presumes the selectors have decided Hameed isn’t going to make it given he’s not injured. He hasn’t had a terrible start to the season. Not an auspicious one by any means but he’s hit one 50, one 100 and finished 93 not out in the victory over Derbyshire yesterday.

  • Key’s main priority should be to beef up his medical team, in my opinion. The bowling attack has been decimated with injuries, which is not good news when you are up against New Zealand who have class batters all the way down the order.

    • Absolutely. We don’t have one quick who is fit at the moment. Probably wouldn’t need a medical team if they got rid of all the hangers on “specialist” coaches. Something is badly amiss with training for cricket throughout the first class game, for instance Surrey had 7 players injured BEFORE the season started!

  • TRJ builds on his good comeback with a six-for including the England captain for a duck.

    Perhaps he should be called up so England can do his back in again?


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