With the championship well and truly underway, several players will be pushing for England selection against South Africa at Lord’s in July. It might seem a long way away – especially as we’ve got the Champions Trophy before then – but it’s funny how time creeps by. Ten weeks will disappear faster than Monty Lynch’s international career.
Many test hopefuls will be thinking that now is the time to make an impression. Guys who start the season well seem to stay in the public consciousness for a long time. Just look at Scott Borthwick last year. Because he started the season like a train, people were still calling for his inclusion in the test side in August – even though he hardly scored a run after his early purple patch.
Last May and June were particularly interesting because quite a few places seemed up for grabs. Every opener worth his salt was pressing for inclusion at the expense of Alex Hales who struggled badly in South Africa. Robson, Gubbins, and Lyth all made runs. And then there was Ian Bell. Many thought a prolific start to the season might see him quickly restored to the England side.
In the end the selectors’ conservative decision to stick with Hales seemed like something of an anti-climax. And when Gary Balance also won a recall mid-summer, despite scoring less runs than there are hairs on Kim Barnett’s head, county form seemed irrelevant in the end.
It will be interesting to see what happens this year. There are still questions to answer. Most people still don’t trust Moeen Ali to bat in the top six, and few agree where Jonny Bairstow or Joe Root should bat. And who is next in the pecking order? After Duckett failed in India there’s a perceived lack of alternatives.
The likely composition of the test side is also complicated by the fact that our all-rounders (guys like Stokes, Moeen, Bairstow and Woakes) have all looked more comfortable at the crease than the so called specialist batsmen we’ve tried. England didn’t pick six bowlers in India because we needed them; in my opinion they did so in order to field the strongest batting line-up.
Today I’d like to discuss which XI you’d like to see us at Lord’s. South Africa will present a huge challenge and England can’t afford to lose if we want to build momentum ahead of the winter’s Ashes series. We need to cement a reliable batting line-up now – one that can cope with fearsome pace bowling.
South Africa will be an excellent barometer. Morkel, Philander and Rabada (with the possibility of a fit Dale Steyn too) make up a formidable attack. My personal view is that players like Moeen and Jos Buttler might get exposed – even though they looked solid enough against India’s spinners in very different conditions.
I’d prefer England to identify a solid looking batting unit now. If they persist entirely with the players employed this winter, I think they’ll struggle this summer and we’ll be forced to blood a couple of rookies down under – a situation which is far from ideal.
The problem is, which batsmen currently outside the squad are good enough to come in and make a difference?
One option would be to play both Hameed and Jennings (with Root moving down to four). I’m not completely opposed to this idea. A top four of Cook, Hameed, Jennings and Root looks reasonable enough.
I’d bat them in this order because (a) England need Cook’s experience at the top in Australia, and (b) I prefer a right-hand and left-hand opening combination – even though some might argue that the Cook-Hameed axis is a little one-paced.
It’s hard to see any alternative top-order players breaking into this group. Having ignored Gubbins last year, and tried just about everyone else in the past, Hameed and Jennings will probably get some breathing space – particularly as both of them made promising starts in India.
However, settling the rest of the line-up isn’t straightforward. Who’s going to bat at 5 – Bairstow? Moeen? Stokes? With Jonny keeping wicket, and Stokes and Mo presumably bowling quite a few overs, five is probably one spot too high for all of them.
So what are the options? Liam Livingston is one. Sam Northeast is another. Or maybe the selectors take a punt on Dawid Malan or Tom Westley?
The problem then, of course, is fitting in all of England’s excellent all-rounders into the XI. With Stokes a shoo-in, Mo our ‘best’ spinner, Woakes a revelation last year, Broad an automatic pick, and Anderson our leading wicket-taker, there’s suddenly no room for our fastest bowler, Mark Wood, or a frontline spinner like Rashid.
The question therefore becomes this: are Northeast or Westley really going to score significantly more runs than Woakes (or perhaps even Rashid)? After all, Woakes averages pretty much the same as them in first class cricket anyway. And suddenly, before you know it, England will be picking six bowlers again.
The pragmatist in me thinks that the selectors and management (although they often seem to have different views!) will ultimately pick the extra batsman – if only because the side will look lopsided otherwise. Can you imagine the XI below playing at Lord’s?
Rashid / Wood
It would seem more traditional to pick the following XI, which avoids selecting six bowlers and the howls of derision that will surely follow.
Malan / Livingston / Westley / Northeast / Uncle Tom Cobley
The choice will therefore probably come down to Woakes versus Wood (or possibly Rashid).
My personal view is that England need to find a space for Wood, who is our fastest bowler and the guy most likely to rough up the Australian batsmen (which is surely what their bowlers will try to do to us). His ability to reverse swing the ball could also be key. However, I’d feel really uncomfortable about dropping Woakes, who is such a fine cricketer.
Who would you pick? The management will have to make some very tough calls in the next nine months.