England have named their first 13-man squad of the new era under Brendon McCullum and Ben Stokes. The immediate takeaway is that if English cricket administrators have not always been as appreciative of Stuart Broad and James Anderson as they should have been, England cricket fans will certainly be grateful that they can call upon such experienced campaigners. Particularly because England’s other seamers have been dropping like flies in recent weeks.
A bad batch of Dukes balls and a punishing early season County Championship schedule have not helped in that regard, with the likes of Saqib Mahmood and Matthew Fisher recently joining longer-term absentees Mark Wood, Jofra Archer and Olly Stone. All-rounder Chris Woakes, who has a superb record with the ball in English conditions, is also unavailable. It will once again fall to Anderson and Broad to lead the attack as a result, just months after they were discarded in the West Indies.
They have the quality to really examine the New Zealand batters’ techniques, and will have able support in Craig Overton and potentially Matthew Potts. Overton has made a solid, if far from spectacular start to his Test career, and will likely need to bat at eight, whilst Potts has been in fine form in the County Championship, taking 7-40 in the second innings against a Glamorgan side that included Marnus Labuschagne in his most recent outing.
The decision not to include Matt Parkinson is a potentially limiting one, with Jack Leach offering rather less attacking threat than the leg-spinner. But Leach does offer more control than Parkinson and in seaming and swinging conditions, that may well be more valuable. At any rate, Leach has generally performed well for England when called upon, especially in light of his Crohn’s disease, and it would have been a harsh call to drop the Somerset man.
If the bowling looks solid, the batting still looks rather frail. Zak Crawley has hardly been able to buy a run in the County Championship with just one fifties to his name and that in the first innings of his first match of the season. Alex Lees has been playing better with two hundreds and a further two fifties to his name so far for Durham this season, but he looked somewhat out of his depth in the Caribbean and it remains to be seen if he can make runs against Test-match quality attacks.
Ollie Pope, meanwhile, looks set to bat at number three. Considering his diminishing returns at Test-level since his debut hundred in South Africa and the crucial fact that he has never batted there before, that would be a big call. And quite possibly the wrong one. In fact, it is symptomatic of the mismanagement of Pope’s career, which has seen him shuffled around the order, dropped and recalled. It is any wonder that he has struggled?
In the end, however one looks at this top three, it is hardly one to strike fear into the opposition. Things look brighter in the middle-order, with Joe Root England’s only world-class batter at four and the often inspirational Ben Stokes at number six. Johnny Bairstow is something of a concern at five, however. He has been in fine form since being recalled to the side during the Ashes, but will come into the first Test with no red-ball cricket behind him since England’s tour of the Caribbean.
Ben Foakes has at least impressed batting for Surrey in the County Championship, whilst Harry Brook looks like an able replacement if one is needed in the middle order. But with three formidable pace attacks set to arrive on these shores in the coming months, this first 13-man squad does not inspire a great deal of confidence in England’s chances.
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