You’ll see two very different questions in the headline above. The first is what England should do. In other words, what changes they should make to their team for Antigua. This involves looking a problem rationally and objectively.
The second question asks what England will do. And this is rather complicated because it involves putting oneself in the shoes of the management, who will be feeling embarrassed, a little defensive, and wary of abandoning a selection policy based on packing the side with all-rounders – no matter how wrongheaded that strategy is.
So let’s begin with the easy one. If England want to turn into a quality test match team capable of playing good cricket consistently, they need to pick the best specialists available. And this means following a tried and trusted blueprint.
In the history of test cricket the best sides usually select either five specialist batsman, an all-rounder, a keeper, and four specialist bowlers (one of whom can handle himself with the bat) OR six specialist batsman (one of whom can turn his arm over), a keeper, and four specialist bowlers.
England have had success with both formulas in the last decade or so:
Michael Vaughan’s 2005 Ashes winners choose the former route: Trescothick, Strauss, Vaughan, Bell, Pietersen, Flintoff, G Jones, Giles, Hoggard, S Jones, Harmison.
Andrew Strauss’s fine XI that briefly reached No.1 in the rankings employed the latter: Strauss, Cook, Trott, Pietersen, Collingwood, Bell, Prior, Swann, Broad, Tremlett, Anderson.
As someone who prefers a five-man bowling attack I would prefer England to emulate the 2005 side. I also think the cricketers at Joe Root’s disposal are better suited to the Fletcher / Vaughan modus operandi.
Strauss’s team greatly depended on Swann bowling unchanged at one end while the seamers rotated at the other end. As we no longer possess a spinner as good as twinkle toes, but we do have a genuine all-rounder like Flintoff (i.e. Stokes), it seems best to eschew the Flower / Strauss attritional method and play positively instead.
So let’s begin to construct that XI for Antigua. Who are the best two openers available? It’s a no-brainer considering the options in the squad. It’s got to be Burns and Denly because Jennings is basically unselectable at this point.
Next we have to pick the three best ‘specialist’ batsman in the squad. This one’s a little tricky because we don’t really have any specialists other than Root. However, I don’t think many would argue that the best batsmen available are Root, Bairstow, and Buttler.
This trio is far from ideal because we’ve basically got a No.4, and two No.6s. Thanks for that Ed. However, if one were to look at their various merits the best order would probably be Root, Buttler, Bairstow.
Although I’d much prefer to see Joe at 4, I just don’t think it’s possible at the moment. I’ve also opted for Jos ahead of Jonny because I think the latter is a nailed on 5/6 whereas I’m not really sure what Jos is. Let’s try him at 4 and see if he’s as special as people say he is. However, I’m not really fussed to be honest.
Then we come to the easy picks. Our all-rounder at 6 (in the Freddie role) is Ben Stokes. And the best pure keeper is Foakes. End of. What’s more, there’s no point burdening Jonny or Jos with the gloves when they’ve got proper runs to score.
When it comes to the bowlers three of them pick themselves: Anderson and Broad are far and away our best new ball specialists. It’s as plain as cravat around Ed Smith’s neck. And the best spinner, judging by the Sri Lanka series and their domestic records, is Jack Leach.
The identity of the fourth bowler is a tad tricky. This is where the cogs in one’s brain need oiling for the first time. There are four options: Moeen Ali, Sam Curran, Chris Woakes, and Adil Rashid. Hmmmm.
I think we can cross Adil off the list first. He played poorly in Barbados and it seems obvious that Root doesn’t trust him – which is one in the eye for those who blamed Broad’s omission in Barbados on Root rather than Bayliss / Smith. If you asked Joe privately I’m sure he would’ve much preferred Stu Pot in the XI.
Choosing between Mo, Sam, and the mighty Woakes should depend on conditions. If it’s likely to turn then Moeen clearly gets the nod. However, I think the Windies are more likely to prepare surfaces that suit Gabriel, Roach, and Joseph. So it’s likely to come down to Curran and Chris.
This is a tough choice. Sam is the future and he will surely improve. However, I’m going to opt for Woakes in Antigua because (a) he’s a more mature cricketer at this point, (b) he scored a century three innings ago (137 at Lord’s), and (c) he’s quicker than Broad and Anderson when fully fit. And England need more firepower. I should also mention that the temptation of fielding a middle-order of Stokes, Foakes and Woakes is just too delicious to pass up 😉
My XI for Antigua is therefore as follows: Burns, Denly, Root, Buttler, Bairstow, Stokes, Foakes, Woakes, Broad, Leach, Anderson.
Obviously the team above is far from perfect but at least it looks more rational and structured on paper. Everyone has a clear role and objective. This team might not be as cute – it doesn’t have a bloke with ten first class centuries at No.10 and it can’t spell the word ‘floccinaucinihilipilification’ – but a test team packed with bits and pieces players is the very definition of floccinaucinihilipilification. So I’m going to keep things simple.
Now we come to the more difficult question: what XI will England pick? After all, brutally jettisoning a policy the national selector gushed about a few months ago would be rather humiliating. Consequently, I predict they’ll make minimal changes but hope for a very different result. This would enable them to silence the critics and save face at the same time.
Consequently I predict England will make just the one change: Broad for Rashid. I guess there’s a chance Broad might come in for Curran if the pitch in Antigua is likely to spin, but I can’t see Leach getting a game. There’s a slim chance that Jennings might get axed too but I suspect England will keep faith. After all, Ed Smith is very invested in Jennings, and it would make no sense to give him three tests in spin-friendly Sri Lanka but then only give him one solitary opportunity against pace – especially as pace is likely to play a big role this summer.
When it comes to the batting order I can’t see any changes at all. Jonny will continue at 3, Joe will carry on at 4, and Stokes will probably still bat at 5. Buttler, as always, will be given every chance possible to succeed against an older ball at 6. I hope I’m wrong about this, but I sense England will justify the current order on the basis that Stokes is a left-hander which breaks up the plethora of righties.
Now obviously the above is just my opinion. I could be wrong and frequently am. In fact, Trevor Bayliss even hinted there could be changes after England’s gutless and inept effort in Barbados. However, if there’s one thing I’ve learned about English cricket over the years it’s that the team’s management and selectors are notoriously stubborn. They like criticism about as much as I like David Warner. And they take criticism about as well as David Warner too.