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The England and Wales Cricket Board paved the way for giving a green light to this winter’s Ashes by issuing a new batch of 20 central contracts on Friday, with Ben Stokes retained in the midst of his ongoing hiatus while Jack Leach, Ollie Robinson and Dawid Malan all earned first-time deals.
The news came shortly before a crucial board meeting in the evening, where the governing body was preparing to rubberstamp plans for the Test series in Australia despite the sudden departure of chairman Ian Watmore just 24 hours earlier.
Many of those who will be called up to do battle for the urn appear in the new list but there has been a change in tone, with the distinction between red and white-ball deals scrapped after five years. All players now appear in a single list, with an internal pay scale which continues to offer greater weight to performances in Test cricket.
Stokes has not played for his country since July, when he cut short rehabilitation on a broken index finger to captain the one-day side at short notice following a Covid outbreak. He has since taken time away from the game to focus on his mental health and his injury, which recently required a second operation.
He is not appearing in the T20 World Cup this month and is unlikely to be back for the Ashes but there are hopes that he will return to the fold in 2022 and his appearance on the contracted list chimes with that belief.
The list of 20 core players is supplemented by four more on incremental terms, while Saqib Mahmood, Craig Overton and Olly Stone all keep their pace bowling development contracts.
Sussex seamer Robinson was superb on the field this summer, despite some self-inflicted turmoil off it, taking 28 wickets in five Tests at an average of 19.60. Malan, meanwhile, was recalled to the Test side having already established himself as a mainstay of the T20 side.
On the other hand, Leach finds himself promoted to the main list having not worn the Three Lions all summer. He was excellent over the winter tours of Sri Lanka and India but was edged out of the team on home soil and owes his renewed status as first-choice Test spinner to Moeen Ali’s retirement.
Twenty annual contracts have been awarded on a new 'single' contract list 🏴 🏏
— England Cricket (@englandcricket) October 8, 2021
One notable loser from the latest round is Dom Sibley, a Test regular since his debut in 2019 but dropped in the summer after a run of poor form. He has been left off the list entirely, suggesting head coach and chief selector Chris Silverwood believes he is some way from a recall.
The decision to axe the Warwickshire opener, who averaged less than 20 with the bat in his 10 Test appearances this year, is at odds with a show of confidence in Zak Crawley and Ollie Pope.
Crawley was also axed from the XI after struggling over an extended period, while Pope has seen his own spot come into question. Both have been kept on, but Sibley’s replacement at the top of the order – Haseeb Hameed – is kept waiting having made just two appearances since beginning his international comeback.
Three members of the 15-man T20 World Cup squad – Sam Billings, David Willey and Tymal Mills – go without contracts, while rising star Liam Livingstone joins Dom Bess, Chris Jordan and Tom Curran on the lower incremental banding.
Ashley Giles, managing director of men’s cricket at the ECB, explained the tweak to the contract system, which had begun to look outdated in an era of greater rest and rotation and expanded travelling squads.
“The international game continues to evolve, and we have to be mindful that we have to lead the way in player performance across cricket’s ever-changing landscape,” he said.
“Our objective remains the same to develop world-class players in all three formats as we strive to become the most respected team in the world.
“I would like to congratulate all the players offered agreements for the coming year, particularly newcomers Jack Leach, Dawid Malan, and Ollie Robinson. Receiving your first central contract is a great moment in any player’s career. They will all play a pivotal role in England’s fortunes over the next 12 months.”