As England name their squad for the two-Test tour of Sri Lanka in March, we take a look at the prominent selections and omissions, with Ben Foakes and Jonny Bairstow among the biggest winners and losers:
England simply don’t know what they want from Bairstow. He was far from the only player to suffer a clear and obvious loss of Test form in the build-up to, and immediate aftermath of, the 2019 World Cup (in which his back-to-back hundreds against India and New Zealand proved to be the second and third most important innings of England’s entire campaign). But he is one of the very few to be singled out for his shortcomings – and his dropping for Sri Lanka is every bit as cack-handed as his recall for the South Africa Tests proved to be.
All things being equal, there’s not actually a lot wrong with a career record of 4030 runs in 70 Tests at 34.74, especially given that Bairstow considers himself a wicketkeeper first and foremost. The difficulty, of course, is that England think he can be so much more than that – the type of player who pillaged 1470 runs at 58.80 in 2016 alone, and who scored a superb hundred from No. 3 on England’s last trip to Sri Lanka. That seems a dim and distant memory all of sudden…
Bairstow’s attitude in recent times had been questioned, in particular his jealous guarding of his keeper’s gauntlets, but by all accounts he was a model professional throughout the South Africa tour, where he played one Test as an emergency recall, was duly bowled for the umpteenth time to give his doubters more ammunition, and then spent the rest of his extended stay in the nets – having flown out to the pre-tour camp in Potchefstroom as well. To be dropped now, and for it to be dressed up as a “rest” despite him putting in overtime that included a full part in the T20 leg of the New Zealand tour before Christmas, smacks of ingratitude.
England’s management may well have got down on their knees to beg Moeen to make himself available for Sri Lanka – a country in which he hoovered up 18 wickets at 24.50 to lead a three-prong spin attack to a memorable series whitewash in 2018-19. There has certainly been plenty time for Joe Root to sound him out during the white-ball leg of the South Africa tour, but the fact that those talks came to naught is a serious concern for England’s long-term Test development.
Had Moeen shown the slightest willingness, he’d have been back in the squad like a shot. But if the good memories of that Sri Lanka campaign couldn’t persuade him to give Test cricket another go, it’s nigh on impossible to see how a five-Test tour of India next winter, or a return to Australia in 2021-22 will shift his stance. At the age of 32, and after 181 wickets in 60 Tests (the second most by any England spinner since Derek Underwood), it’s entirely possible he won’t be seen again in England whites.
As George Dobell noted on the Switch Hit podcast, the ECB’s decision last September to strip Moeen of his Test contract may now come back to bite them. It came after Moeen had admitted to feeling burnt out – he had been dropped at the sharp end of the World Cup after an untimely loss of form, then drummed out of the Ashes after a single fallow display in the first Test defeat at Edgbaston – and a sense of betrayal has clearly lingered. Moeen, it seems, feels under-valued, and yet the scramble, in his absence, to assemble a spin attack capable of emulating last year’s series win shows the folly of allowing him to think that.
It’s a measure of Anderson’s extraordinary competitive drive that his name was even in the frame for Sri Lanka. It’s not the sort of tour that you’d ordinarily assign to a 37-year fast bowler with a dodgy rib, especially having played just three Tests out of a possible 12 in the past 12 months – and especially given that, on his last trip there in November 2018, he claimed a solitary wicket at 105.00 in two Tests.
But that’s not to say his role was redundant on that tour, however. As England’s spin trio came to the fore, Anderson slotted into the de facto holding role, utilising his impeccable command of line and length to give away his runs at 2.56 and ensure that one end of the pitch was in permanent lock-down while the twirlymen went on the attack.
Fitness permitting, you’d still back Anderson to perform that role again. Speaking on Sky Sports last week, Anderson reiterated his desire to push on past the age of 40 and carry on mastering a craft in which few bowlers in English history have proven craftier. With another month to go until the tour begins, there was a chance that his broken rib – which caused him the “most pain he’d ever experienced on a cricket field” – would have sufficiently healed. But England arguably asked too much too soon on each of his last two comebacks, and besides there’s a home summer looming against West Indies and Pakistan in which he can press on to that elusive 600th wicket.
Over the course of this winter, Denly’s career figures have attained near comical levels of consistency. He flew home from New Zealand in November with 570 Test runs at an average of exactly 30.00, and will land in Colombo in March with 780 Test runs at 30.00 … having racked up 210 doggedly compiled runs at 30.00 in the course of his last four Tests in South Africa.
He is the ultimate 30-something cricketer, you might say, but to England he is arguably more valuable than that. Denly has provided a woolly jumper’s worth of off-the-shelf experience, perfectly tailored to do a job and spare everyone else the embarrassment of watching the top order come apart at the seams yet again.
The fact that a “dentury” has become a thing this winter (at least in the Twittersphere) is a testament to Denly’s impressive determination to face 100 balls on every visit to the crease – he’s managed it on nine of his last 15 visits since his underappreciated role in the Headingley miracle last August, including five in a row at the sharp end of the South Africa tour.
It hasn’t been pretty, but it’s been quietly effective – and ironically, his impact was perhaps best demonstrated in his pair of battling fifties in the ODI series just gone. Both were completely out of kilter with the hard-and-fast mood of the times, but both were exactly what the team needed in times of duress, and if he hadn’t served them up, would you have bet on any of the rest of the team doing likewise?
There were rumours in recent weeks that Denly faced the chop for Sri Lanka – a prospect that would have shocked precisely no one. But Ed Smith remains a significant ally in the selection camp, as indeed should his own team-mates. Remember the anarchy around the time of England’s last tour of Sri Lanka, when an allrounder-heavy line-up all wanted to bat at No. 6 and precisely no one fancied first drop? Denly’s willingness to take on a dirty job has stifled that debate for now, and spared the likes of Zak Crawley and Ollie Pope premature exposure to one of the sport’s toughest roles. He’ll need to find a few more ways to keep his feet moving against the spinners, but he’s let no-one down with his diligence so far.
This is a big opportunity for Parkinson, albeit one that has come about through Adil Rashid’s reluctance to put himself forward for more Test duties. Whether he’s ready to take it is a moot point – who knows, Denly’s legspin might find itself pressed into service more than ever before – but these are the sort of surfaces where Parkinson may thrive, and who knows what confidence he could carry forward from even intermittent success.
It hasn’t taken long this winter for the concerns about Parkinson’s pace through the air to come to the fore – he was confined to the nets throughout the Tests in New Zealand and South Africa, although Rashid’s immediate success on his return to the ODI side in Johannesburg last week showed that Parkinson’s lack of a googly is every bit as significant. But he’s 23 and he has time to learn, so long as he isn’t chewed up by the system in the interim, like so many of his slow-bowling contemporaries.
As for Rashid’s absence, it’s an understandable attitude, albeit one that is sadly typical of the Test versus white-ball gulf that is opening up in England’s ranks. Rashid’s spinning shoulder was hanging by a thread throughout the World Cup, and he had noticeably more pace and “snap” on his recall at the Wanderers after careful management through the winter. But at the age of 32, and after more than a decade as an England player, Rashid is well within his rights to assess his priorities, and recognise that, with back-to-back T20 World Cups followed by the 50-over defence in India in 2023, white-ball specialism is a no-brainer.
With England pivoting towards an old-school brand of crease-occupation Test cricket, it beggars belief how they’ve taken so long to reintegrate Foakes into their plans. Admittedly, they’ve been so overladen with wicketkeeping options in recent years that even Pope ended up being given a gig in New Zealand before Christmas, but few candidates have fit the new-old bill quite like Foakes, whose effortlessly composed century on debut in Sri Lanka 18 months ago dovetailed with some typically silken glovework to earn him the Player of the Series award in a 3-0 clean sweep.
Since then, however, he’s paid the price for England’s muddied Test priorities. His calm accumulatory methods were out of kilter in the Caribbean last spring, where he ended up being dropped for the sake of team balance, and despite another man-of-the-match display in a one-off ODI debut against Ireland in May (remember that?) he was soon packed off back to county cricket where he admitted to struggling for focus – hardly surprising, given that his very best England efforts had consistently been deemed not good enough.
He’s still not a shoo-in, however, as he prepares to return to the scene of his finest hour. It seems Foakes will travel to Sri Lanka as Buttler’s understudy, despite the sense in Johannesburg that Buttler himself had reached the end of his own Test tether with a top score of 29 for the series. And with Bairstow banished for now, but surely primed to fight his way back into contention as soon as he can actually get a string of first-class matches under his belt, there’s clearly no guarantee that Foakes will be given a clear run for the summer series. But at least his name is back in the frame. That’s all he can ask for, for now.
As mooted in these pages some months ago, there’s something to be said for having a subcontinental specialist in your ranks. With Rory Burns out of action after ankle surgery, Jennings is set for a comeback in a continent where he averages 44.44 in five matches, including both of his Test hundreds.
It’s a recall that is sure to divide opinion – Jennings averages 17.31 in his other 12 Tests, without a single half-century in 22 innings – and with England building towards the 2021-22 Ashes, this is hardly an investment for success at the Gabba or Adelaide. It is, however, an investment for England’s return to India for five Tests in 12 months’ time, with World Test Championship points up for grabs – and let’s not forget, when England last won out there in 2012-13, it was the prowess of a left-handed opener against spin wot won it.
Jennings’ specialisation is also relevant in his work under the helmet at short leg. He scooped up eight catches in the last Sri Lanka series, some of them utter blinders, and if Pope gave him a run for his money with his own efforts in South Africa, then the more safe catchers round the bat, the better England’s hopes of turning the screw.
And furthermore, Jennings’ involvement helps to broaden the base of England’s Test squad, and gives a chance for all that lip-service about managing player workload to come to actual fruition. On the face of it, it might not matter for the more specialised roles such as Test opener – it’s the likes of Stokes and the fast bowlers who need the most careful management. But, given that the prospect of England playing less international cricket is nigh on non-existent, the principle of squad rotation is one that needs to be embraced for the greater good.