Chris Silverwood selects squad to face New Zealand with Ashes in mind

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Sussex pace bowler Ollie Robinson in action - GETTY IMAGES
Sussex pace bowler Ollie Robinson in action - GETTY IMAGES

It’s just over 200 days until the Ashes series begins in Brisbane but England’s planning for that series was stamped all over the first squad of the summer announced yesterday.

The absences of Ben Stokes, Jofra Archer and Jos Buttler - all automatic picks in normal circumstances - allowed Chris Silverwood to use his first squad to look at fringe players and he intimated that it will be a failure of planning if anyone is thrown into a debut against Australia.

The two Test series against New Zealand next month, and the five matches in high summer with India, are the final steps on a path to Australia mapped out by Silverwood when he sat down with Joe Root at the start of his tenure as head coach in October 2019.

The pandemic threatened to throw those plans in doubt but the upside was that expanded squads enabled Silverwood to see the next generation and call ups for Ollie Robinson and James Bracey, as well as a recall for Craig Overton, are the fruits of those long months in covid bubbles.

“One thing we’ve talked about is to try and get to the point where we’re not debuting anybody in Australia. It’s been a plan now for a while and we have given different people different experiences. Debuted people, got more experience into people, so we’re banking that all the way to the Ashes, really,” said Silverwood.

The challenge of picking expanded covid squads last year enthused Ed Smith, appealing to his inquiring mind as he relished the chance to be different, but ultimately it brought the coach closer to players he would not normally see and left England realising they no longer needed a specialist selector. Smith has gone and Silverwood said yesterday if the team underperforms “it is me for the high jump.”

The Ashes series will go a long way to deciding his future but New Zealand and India are World Test Championship finalists. Failing to keep an eye on the challenge in front of them because they are distracted by a bigger prize could bite England if they are not careful.

“We talk a lot about what it’ll look like when we get to the Ashes, what the game plan looks like. The game plan has to be practised and instilled in the India series, the New Zealand series. It’s a continuation of working on the gameplan and getting people in a good space, making sure they have banked plenty of Test experience before they arrive there. If we can get that experience into them that would be fantastic. Equally we understand we have two of the best teams in the world in front of us this summer. Play well against them, play to our abilities, it will obviously help us win the Ashes as well.”

Without Stokes (injured) and Chris Woakes and Sam Curran (rested) England lack an allrounder and balancing the XI presents Silverwood with his trickiest decision. Overton or Robinson are capable no 8s behind six batsmen and Ben Foakes at seven but that leaves just four bowlers and a bit of Root offspin for cover. “With the guys that are missing - Stokes, Woakes, Curran - it does leave a gap in the batting order. Whichever way we cover the team up this time it could look a little imbalanced,” said Silverwood. “But the options are there for us: do we play seven batters, four bowlers? And then with the four bowlers, do you play three seamers and one spinner? Or six batters and five bowlers? They’re all things that we’ve got to discuss moving into this Test match.”

Silverwood hinted the top three will revert to Rory Burns, Dom Sibley and Zak Crawley with the India tour consigned to history and written off as a freakish time on freakish pitches. Burns is back following a solid start to the summer for Surrey after he was dropped in Ahmedabad but the selection of Bracey, who could bat anywhere in the top six, signals he can not afford another poor series, especially with Silverwood’s desire to blood anyone new before Australia and not waste time on a player with doubts over his place.

Jofra Archer will see a specialist this week and is expected to be referred for surgery on his right elbow ruling him out for most of the summer. Silverwood warned Stokes faces a “slow return” from a badly broken finger but he will be back for India along with Woakes, who has not played for England since his brilliant summer of 2020, and Buttler.

The New Zealand series starts at Lord’s on June 2 with a reduced crowd but in front of refitted Compton and Edrich stands that will lend an air of a fresh beginning. This series was arranged to help the counties financially after covid and a second Test at Edgbaston, on June 10, will be welcomed by Warwickshire, hit hard by the decimation of the hospitality sector.

Analysis: Burns handed lifeline - he cannot afford to waste it

Rory Burns endured a tough winter. Dropped in India for the first time in his England career, he also landed in trouble for a silly twitter spat with women’s cricketer Alex Hartley which gave a glimpse into how he was struggling to handle the pressure cocooned in a Covid bubble on a tough tour.

Silverwood has given him one more chance and he cannot afford two low-scoring Tests against New Zealand as the race for an Ashes tour place reaches its final stages. In Bracey, he has a genuine contender for a place in the top order and does not have age on his side like Sibley and Crawley.

Burns deserves some loyalty. He has a central contract, which should still mean something despite the IPL making them largely toothless, and there were extenuating circumstances behind his poor winter.

He missed the tour of Sri Lanka to attend the birth of his child, rightly putting family first but leaving himself with the awesome task of attuning to conditions on his first tour to India against some great spin bowlers. He started well but his first innings of 33, on what would be the only dead pitch of the series in Chennai, summed up his Test career. He got himself out playing a reverse sweep when set, a failure to take a golden chance to make runs that did not present itself again. An unplayable first-baller in his next innings from Ravi Ashwin followed and he was out the side after the next match was lost, living proof that Test cricket can be cruel.

Silverwood recognises the unusual nature of that tour and his batsmen are unlikely to be presented with such challenging spinning conditions again. Last week, Silverwood and his management team spent two days brainstorming at Loughborough University, assessing each player individually on where they are now and their future prospects. Burns survived the cut, thankful that younger players did not make themselves undroppable in India, but also because he had a good Ashes two years ago, weathering the battering from the quick bowlers and showing some mental fortitude in working on his weaknesses to make himself a better player. However, as Dawid Malan discovered, Ashes hundreds only offer protection for so long.

Burns has had a steady summer so far without producing anything spectacular. Fifties in his last four innings point to a resurgence of form and he coped well in difficult conditions against Somerset last week, but he has not made a hundred, continuing that knack of finding ways to get out, not a good habit for openers in England who at any moment can so easily endure a run of low scores against the new ball. It is one reason why his Test average hovers just above 30.

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