For the first time this winter, England men have their strongest squad in place.
And there is good reason for that; the T20 series that starts on Friday is against the best team in the world, in the country that will host this year’s T20 World Cup. England are desperate to win that, and become the first men’s team to hold both the ODI and T20 World Cups at the same time.
So the cavalry has arrived. Jos Buttler, Moeen Ali and Sam Curran, all of whom were rested to varying degrees for the Test series along with Mark Wood and Jonny Bairstow, return. Had all of them been available all series, India would surely still have been too much for England – but a rare opportunity to find out has been missed.
The policy of rest and rotation in this unique winter has been well-intentioned, and cannot be judged fully until we emerge from this awful fixture jam that was exacerbated by Covid-19. That moment will not arrive for a year yet, if ever.
But, like never before, the policy has exposed the archaicness of England’s contract system. To briefly explain: England have 12 Test contracts and 12 white-ball contracts, which are worth around a third of a Test deal. This year, five players have both, so a total of 19 players have England contracts. Four more have increment deals that essentially top up their county salary but give the ECB little control of the players.
We received another reminder that this system does not work yesterday, as Curran was put up to speak to the media.
In September, he was awarded a Test contract, despite playing only two Tests in each of the last two home summers - he has been involved more overseas). He played in Sri Lanka, then missed the entire series against India, against whom he was man of the series last time around, due to planned rest and unplanned logistical issues.
He will now play the white-ball matches against India, and the IPL with Chennai Super Kings. That is likely to mean he misses two Tests against New Zealand – along with four other Test-contracted players in Buttler, Chris Woakes, Ben Stokes and Jofra Archer.
As a rare talent worthy of involvement in all three formats, but not a lock in any, Curran is exactly the kind of player for whom a contract system for 24 players that does not distinguish between formats is required. This winter, Curran, Wood and Moeen have been in similar boats, yet England pay the Surrey all-rounder - as well as the likes of single-formatters Rory Burns and Dom Sibley - more than double what they pay the other two. None of this is the players’ fault, but it does not seem right.
Such reminders of the shortcomings of the system have come all winter.
White-ball contracted Bairstow and Moeen were rested for Tests they would have played almost immediately after being recalled. Woakes has both a red- and white-ball deal, and was England’s man of the summer in 2020, yet looks set to make it through the winter without playing a single match in any format.
Wood has a white-ball contract, but everything seems geared towards Test cricket; England claim he is a vital part of their Ashes tilt, and the player himself pulled out of the IPL auction - where fast bowlers sold at eye-watering rates - to preserve himself for Tests ahead. That is some sacrifice for Wood, who deserves praise for putting the IPL second at a great financial cost now and possibly later in his career. The IPL is clearly a brilliant thing for English players to be involved in, but he alone accepts it might be overkill right now.
The trouble for the ECB is that these Tests against New Zealand were put in the diary after the IPL, which has for some years had its own window in the calendar. The ECB has wisely avoided such a clash in recent years but needed a post-pandemic coffer-filler. To get those games on, they had to accept that some of their top talent would be absent.
Yet perhaps the most grievous contract oversight in 2020, though, was for a player who has never played a single professional T20.
Jack Leach was one of just three players - Joe Root and Dom Sibley the others - to play all six Tests this year. Leach only has an increment contract.
Yes, he had a difficult year of illness and bubble-bound drinks-mixing before the contracts were decided, but England did not offer any spinner a Test deal. Moeen and Adil Rashid got white-ball deals, Leach and Dom Bess incrementals. That is a remarkable approach in a year that England played six Tests in Asia, with spin always set to be key.
It is another reminder that Leach, a spinner with an average under 30, has arguably not been afforded the respect he deserves by the English game. Now, he should get a long run in the side in all conditions – and should be upgraded to a Test deal.
This is possible; a substantial pot is set aside to change contracts in “exceptional circumstances”. Given Leach is on course to play every match in the contract cycle, while others like Curran and Woakes are unlikely to play even half, and is the first-choice in his position, it seems fair to conclude that these are such circumstances.
As a winter in which everything has been set in stone draws to a close, it is finally time for some flexibility.