No Stokes. No Balance.

Just some quick thoughts about England’s Test squad for the New Zealand series. What did you make of the squad? At first glance I was pretty happy. Every single one of the players selected deserves their place. But when I started thinking about the makeup of the final XI, the concerns crept in.

The problem, of course, is how on earth England are going to field a balanced XI from the 15 names selected by the Ed Smithless braintrust. It’s not really their fault, as it’s incredibly difficult to replace Ben Stokes, but it did strike me that we’ve suddenly gone from a team packed full of all-rounders to no all-rounders at all.

This isn’t a moan at anyone in particular. It is what it is. Both James Bracey and Ollie Robinson deserve their places on merit. Craig Overton will never be a world class operator but he’s never let England down either. Plus, although he’s no Stokes or indeed a Chris Woakes, he can actually handle the willow competently. Maybe the scouts and Silverwood thought he was the best of the imperfect options available?

However, none of this changes the fact that England won’t be able to take the field with a truly balanced XI come the first Test. We’ll either be a seamer short, a batsman short, missing a spinner, or be forced to field a one-paced attack. After all, I can’t see them selecting either Wood or Stone if only 4 specialist bowlers play. It would be riskier than coating one’s private parts in nectar and standing next to a bee hive.

So what will England do? I expect the batting will look solid enough with Burns, Sibley, Crawley, Root, Lawrence and Pope forming a reasonable top 6. Then I expect Foakes to get the nod over Bracey as keeper at 7. But then what do we do? There’s only room for 4 bowlers now. And none of them can bat as well as Woakes.

If one assumes that Anderson and Broad will play, that leaves a shoot out between Overton, Robinson and Leach for the final spot. If they pick Overton (primarily to strengthen the batting) and Leach then the attack will look very once paced. It will look even more one-dimensional if they leave out Leach and opt for both Overton and Robinson – not forgetting that the latter can bat a bit too.

Given Silverwood’s worrying track record – he’s inexplicably fielded a 5-man seam attack twice in the past – my best bet is that England will pick a 4-man (and one paced) all seam attack and leave out Leach. Word will then be passed to the groundsman to leave some grass on the surface. The problem is that New Zealand will be licking their lips too if England go down this route. Their seamers are more than capable of exploiting movement off the pitch.

England’s other option will be to leave out Lawrence or Pope (one suspects it will be the former) and go into the match a batsman short. They might opt for Bracey over Foakes in these circumstances as Bracey might be considered the better batsman at 6. However, this would leave the side with a porous lower-middle order occupied by the likes of Overton and 7 and maybe Robinson at 8. That’s probably a slot too high for all of them. However, at least this route would enable them to field Wood or Stone and inject a little pace into the side.

One has to admit that this is the mother of all conundrums. And I’m not precisely sure what I’d do. However, I do know one thing with 100% certainty. Somewhere an incredulous Ed Smith will be chuntering at the back of a room chanting the words ‘”total cricket, total cricket, why did nobody ever listen to me”? I won’t answer that one, Ed.

England squad: Burns, Sibley, Crawley, Root, Pope, Lawrence, Bracey, Foakes, Overton, Robinson, Leach, Broad, Anderson, Wood, Stone.

James Morgan

10 comments

  • I would have liked to see at least one out of Matt Critchley and Ryan Higgins named as possibles for the #7 slot. As it is England have left themselves a choice between batting Overton at seven which would be relying heavily on the guys up top doing well or having only four genuine bowling options. Given NZs bowling and the likely conditions I would opt in this situation for only four genuine bowling options and go: Sibley, Burns, Crawley, *Root, Pope, +Foakes, Lawrence, Robinson (just gets the nod ahead of Overton for me), Stone, Leach, Anderson. Note that I would play Foakes at six and Lawrence at seven rather than vice versa because I would prefer to have someone between Foakes and the bowlers even acknowledging that Robinson is a useful lower order batter and Stone far from a rank tail ender, and I believe Lawrence is well suited to producing the kind of controlled aggression that can be necessary when batting with the tail and Foakes less so.

  • I’d have thought England would have wanted to field their strongest team available against New Zealand but obviously they have issues to tackle including COVID and injuries. That said, I’m really looking forward to this series and the return of Test cricket.

    • I would say that the only first choice player missing (for me) is Stokes. But he gives the team so many options in balancing that side. The other potential omission is Buttler but I really don’t think the side loses anything by having Foakes instead. In fact, many will see this as a net gain. There’s also Jofra Archer but I don’t think Wood / Stone are particularly inferior imho. IF they can stay fit.

      • I agree with that assessment. Can be misleading I know, but if you compare the Test averages of Buttler and Foakes, and make allowance for runs saved and wickets taken when each is keeping, Foakes is an asset rather than a weakness.

  • How much of an all-rounder is Stokes really these days? He doesn’t bowl much, especially overseas.

    Archer’s injury was no great surprise. What is surprising is that someone could get quite well into a career with a method that had injury built into it (I mean hyper-extending his elbow, not the usual wear of fast bowling). They said they wanted to turn Overton into a speedster which sounds ominous.

    Anyway, it seems like the eternal questions hang over the team and the usual solution – prepare a green top for Jimmy and Broady – will paper over the cracks. I suspect it won’t be long before the usual solution to balancing the team reappears (clue: he plays for Worcestershire…. ).

  • Agree with you James, but as you say with no Stokes or Woakes available it’s about the best you can hope for to start things off. Even after the winter tours the encumbents deserve a chance to prove themselves on home soil, as conditions were alien to most of them and the home batsmen didn’t do much better over there. Root can be the 5th bowler, as he’s competent enough to keep and end up for a while and maybe even take a wicket or two. There’s no true all rounder demanding attention at the moment. Not sure about Overton in preference to Wood or Stone, it’s going backwards for me, though fitness doubts with the other 2 remain an issue. However if you’re going to,pick them in a squad you presume the selectors are satisfied they can handle a 5 day match. At some point you’ve got to trust them and not wrap them in cotton wool.
    We’ve had decades of bits and pieces ‘total cricket’ that hasn’t worked, as it’s a defensive option, so let’s try having a settled order with their specific roles in a more traditional set up. It’s no good being balanced and versatile if you’re not effective in those roles. Give players a specific job to concentrate on and see how they fare.

  • For once I wouldn’t be too worried about Stokes’ absence. Better to pick specialists in Test cricket rather than a load of bits and pieces players.

    In early season English conditions, I suspect they’ll just go for 4 seamers and leave out Leach- Root can bowl himself a bit if spin is needed. We have to play to our own strengths even if they also happen to be the opposition’s too.

  • Given the same constraints, would Ed Smith have picked anything different? The balance doesn’t look too bad, whether they go for a four-man attack (assuming Leach is one of the four) or five. Stokes as number 5 bat and 4th seamer would have been ideal, but he is not there. Smith would have wanted Sam Curran and Buttler, and they’re not there either. I actually think the team looks a better mix without them, which is not to undervalue them as cricketers.

    No problem going in with four bowlers, provided 1) your spinner can be relied upon to do the containment role, and 2) none of your pacemen is going to break down. Then, it’s a judgment call on whether Leach is that spinner – I think he is – and which seamers to pick. Again, it’s possibly a blessing that Archer is absent. For me, it should be Robinson (or Overton), Wood, and Anderson. Plus Broad, if they go down the five-bowler route.

    I’m a fan of Stone, have been since his Northants days, but his fitness record is disappointing. Wood seems to have been undervalued by the outgoing management. I was watching in South Africa, when he was outstanding, when Archer was anything but.

    My 12: Burns, Sibley, Crawley, Root, Lawrence, Pope, Foakes, Robinson, Leach, Wood, Broad, Anderson
    The final decision between Pope and Broad. Possibly…The batting does look a bit thin with Robinson at 7 and Leach at 8..They could play both Overton and Robinson, I suppose, and no Broad. Sorry, Stuart.

  • The problem, of course, is how on earth England are going to field a balanced XI from the 15 names selected by the Ed Smithless braintrust. It’s not really their fault, as it’s incredibly difficult to replace Ben Stokes, but it did strike me that we’ve suddenly gone from a team packed full of all-rounders to no all-rounders at all.
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