After a long and difficult winter and a lot of off-field chat, it will be a relief for many that the focus will move to matters on the field as England’s international summer begins at Lord’s on Thursday, with the first of two Tests against Pakistan. The chat surrounding the ECB’s proposed hundred-ball competition has to some extent distracted from what was a very poor winter for the Test side, losing five and winning none of their seven Tests in Australia and New Zealand.
Trevor Bayliss has kept his job – for now – but there are some changes behind the scenes as the ECB chose to restructure their selection process, with Ed Smith appointed as the new head selector. His interview apparently placed emphasis on an increased use of data and analytics, which is very much the way sport is going, although his first squad appears to have been picked on gut instinct to some extent.
Changes were inevitable after a winless winter, with the top order in particular under the spotlight for repeatedly failing to turn forties and fifties into hundreds. Having said that, there aren’t many batsmen on the county circuit staking a strong claim for selection, and we’ve seen in recent years that good county performances are no guarantee that a player will perform at Test level. Regardless, it was still a surprise to see Jos Buttler’s name included in the 12-man squad, having barely seen a red ball for the last three years. The freakishly talented wicketkeeper-batsman can leave his gloves at home as he takes up a specialist batsman role at seven, with Jonny Bairstow moving up to five.
Buttler has more ODI hundreds to his name than first-class hundreds, and he only has six fifties to his name in his 18 Test appearances to date. Looking only at his red ball record, the data would suggest there’s no argument that can be made for his inclusion, but his ability is beyond question and England will hope he can perform a Gilchrist-style role low in the order. The man to make way for Buttler is James Vince. The Hampshire man had very much been a wildcard pick at three and it never really paid off, all too often getting himself out caught behind the wicket. That will surely be Vince’s last chance in the Test side, barring a significant upturn in form at county level.
Captain Joe Root has therefore moved up to three, despite his reluctance to do so for the winter tours. Root’s inability to convert fifties to hundreds has been a source of frustration for many, although he has at least been a consistent contributor to the side. His promotion up the order should at least offer more stability at the top of the order and reduce the likelihood of the team slipping to 30-3, as they have done on so many occasions recently. The lack of viable alternatives mean that Alistair Cook and Mark Stoneman keep their places at the top of the order, with the latter more likely to be dropped if he can’t make a big score against Pakistan, while Dawid Malan moves up one place to four.
The other main talking point is the inclusion of Dom Bess, the young right-arm off-spin bowler from Somerset who will surely make his Test debut at Lord’s. Bess has been the beneficiary of an injury to Jack Leach, who broke his thumb while training with Somerset and would have retained his place having made his debut in New Zealand. Moeen Ali’s nightmare Ashes series has pushed him out of the reckoning for now.
In the seam bowling department, it is business as usual as Chris Woakes and Mark Wood compete for the final spot alongside veterans James Anderson and Stuart Broad. Wood’s extra pace makes him an attractive selection, although he struggled somewhat in the second Test in New Zealand. Woakes’ extra batting ability may give him the edge, albeit that would leave England with a one-dimensional seam attack which was one of the main criticisms levelled at the side over the winter. At least Ben Stokes should be fully fit and raring to go, which will offer something a little different with the ball.
Pakistan put in a very credible performance in their last tour of England two years ago, winning both London Tests to claim a 2-2 series draw and briefly go top of the world rankings. They have lost some key figures in the intervening period, in particular key batsman Younis Khan and inspirational leader Misbah ul-Haq, but they still possess a talented squad that can challenge over a shorter series.
There should be no excuse for being under-cooked, as there have been with a number of other touring sides in recent years, given that Pakistan have already played a Test in challenging conditions in Ireland. They had a few wobbly moments but dealt with the pressure of the run chase to win by five wickets in what will be the most bowler-friendly conditions they are likely to encounter on this tour.
The likely line-up is a blend of solid Test players and a few talented youngsters. Azhar Ali is a key figure at the top of the order and will be expected to anchor the batting line-up. Asad Shafiq’s contribution will also be vital, while Babar Azam needs to find a way to bring his superb one-day form into the Test arena. Azam averages over 50 in ODIs but is yet to manage a century in his dozen Test appearances. Captain and wicketkeeper Sarfraz Ahmed is likely to come in at six with Pakistan fielding five bowlers.
The guile of Yasir Shah will be sorely missed, but thankfully for them they have another talented leg-spinner in Shadab Khan. Much is expected of the 19-year-old but it remains to be seen how helpful these early-season conditions will be, although we have seen previously how much England struggle against good spin bowling. Mohammad Amir is expected to lead the attack despite sustaining a knee injury against Ireland, and he will most likely be supported by Mohammad Abbas and Rahat Ali. Attacking all-rounder Faheem Ashraf will help to balance the side and could help to reduce the workload of Amir, if he is struggling to get through his overs. This seam attack is capable of causing problems for any side and they will fancy their chances against England’s vulnerable top order.
Although this is (disappointingly) only a two-match series, it is very difficult to predict with any certainty which way it will go. England rightly enter the series as favourites, given their experience and ability in home conditions, but the propensity of their batting line-up to collapse and a capable Pakistan seam attack means you cannot rule out the tourists at any stage. The hosts ought to win this series 2-0 – and after the last few months English cricket could really do with a morale boost – but can they be trusted to string together enough good sessions to do so? The pressure is high on a number of England players as they look to nail down their place ahead of the main event of the summer, the five match Test series against India, and I expect Pakistan to give them a stern test.