With the start of the English Test summer now barely three weeks away, the stage is set for an entertaining England vs New Zealand tussle. The two sides have met fairly regularly of late and there should be few secrets, not least because England’s new coach is none other than former-Black Caps captain Brendon McCullum, credited by his successor in the role Kane Williamson with revolutionizing the New Zealand approach.
New Zealand’s results in recent years certainly paint an encouraging picture. The Black Caps have reached three World Cup finals since 2015, in both the ODI and T20 competitions, and can count themselves extremely unlucky to have walked away empty handed. But they did win the inaugural Test championship, beating India in the final as well as recording a memorable 1-0 series win away from home over England last summer.
McCullum was not exactly intimately involved in those successes, but he is understandably very well-regarded in New Zealand cricket circles and England’s struggles have been such that he and Ben Stokes will have plenty of leeway to make changes. There is also an acceptance that England’s red-ball fortunes will not be revived overnight. Significant changes are needed in the English system and it will take time for them to take effect.
That said, a side with England’s resources simply need to perform better. If this summer is set to be a challenging one with New Zealand, as well as India and South Africa, very dangerous opposition, it is not necessarily an insurmountable challenge. If England can play their best cricket, and exploit the advantage of playing at home, there is no reason why they cannot be competitive. But that will also rely on having their best players in the XI.
Which begs the question: what is England’s best XI? Certain players pick themselves, with Joe Root a lock at number four and new captain Ben Stokes in a similarly impregnable position at number six. New managing director Rob Key and Stokes have also strongly suggested that the veterans Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad will return to the team after being dropped in the Caribbean. But that still leaves seven places to fill with plenty of competition for each spot.
Alex Lees and Zak Crawley are the men in possession at the top of the order, but neither should feel certain of their place. Crawley clearly has plenty of talent, but opening the batting in Test cricket is an exceptionally tough job and so far he does not look cut out for it. Lees, meanwhile, looked somewhat out of his depth against the West Indies, but it would be harsh to call an end to his Test career after just three matches. Especially as he has made a fine start to the County Championship.
At any rate, there are few obvious candidates to replace either Crawley or Lees. Rory Burns has made an indifferent start to the season with Surrey, whilst it is surely too soon for his partner Ryan Patel. Tom Lammonby looks to have a bright future, but is probably not ready to step up to Test-level after just 24 first-class matches. Dom Sibley and Haseeb Hameed, meanwhile, both failed to convince in Test cricket, whilst the ship has clearly sailed for the likes of Keaton Jennings and Adam Lyth.
Number three is also a problem position for England. Lancashire’s Josh Bohannon has been suggested as an option and made a sparkling 231 against Gloucester earlier this season, but has struggled for runs aside from that. For now, however, Dawid Malan is perhaps the best option. His Test career has been stop-start and just one hundred in 22 matches is not particularly impressive, but in the absence of any particularly obvious candidates, he is a relatively steadying presence.
Johnny Bairstow remains the obvious candidate to bat at number five after solid returns over the winter and a fine record overall. He should be available with his IPL side Punjab Kings fast slipping out of playoff contention, though a lack of red-ball preparation could hurt his chances. Dan Lawrence, the man likeliest to replace him at number five, has been out of action with a hamstring problem. That could open the door for Yorkshire’s Harry Brook who has been in excellent form.
It is hard to look past Ben Foakes to take the gloves and bat at seven. He is the best gloveman in the English game and his returns with the bat have been solid if not spectacular throughout his career. The experiment with Jos Buttler is surely over now. For all his white-ball brilliance, he simply has not delivered consistently enough in red-ball cricket and though he has impressed in this season’s IPL, that is hardly ideal preparation for a Test match.
Chris Woakes has lost his race to get fit for the first Test against New Zealand which opens the door for a bowling all-rounder at number eight. Sam Curran has experience on his side and a solid record with bat and ball in English conditions, but is himself working his way back to full fitness. Jamie Overton might be well-placed to take advantage. He has been bowling with real pace in the Championship this year and has also played a few handy knocks.
It will also be interesting to see whether England look to go with an all-seam attack or to call up a spinner. If they do opt for a spinner, it will surely be between Matt Parkinson and Jack Leach. Parkinson is a more attacking option, but Leach’s greater control may be a more attractive option in what are likely to be seaming conditions. Lancashire quick Saqib Mahmood may also be an option after a good start to his Test career in the West Indies.
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