England’s squad to travel to Sri Lanka cannot have been the easiest the selectors have ever had to pick.
There was a tricky balance to strike between the recent successes in South Africa (which fed into their long-term goal of winning in Australia in two winters’ time), and the very different method that brought them such rare joy in Sri Lanka 18 months ago, while also wrestling with their own previous mismanagement of senior players.
South Africa had the feel of a corner turned for a new team and “continuity” was the sixth word by the National Selector, Ed Smith, in his statement announcing the squad. That is why Joe Denly and Jos Buttler have been retained at No3 and as wicketkeeper-batsman respectively.
These two are favourites of Smith, but very different cases; Denly is the “stopgap” doing a decent job at No3, while Buttler is the lavish talent still waiting to come good. Denly will have been a simple enough selection this time, Buttler not so much. In his favour, though, he had his centrality to the dressing room, strong record in the subcontinent and, even after 41 Tests and aged 29, potential. Only he and those close to him know if he needs a rest, as many have speculated.
With that Sri Lanka series in mind, Ben Foakes and Keaton Jennings are back – at this stage – as highly-qualified cover. Foakes, with a flawless keeping display and runs leading to the man of the match award, was a no-brainer selection. Jennings is a short-term horses for courses pick who will probably not play. It feels like a backward step for a team going places, but is acceptable enough – he has a method in Sri Lanka, at least – as long as England are not lulled into picking him in conditions where spin is not king.
The combination of all four of those players means there is no place for Jonny Bairstow. Despite being given a fresh new contract, he was “dropped” by England and told to “reset”, less than five months ago. Since, he has been with the squad at some stage in all five series across all formats that they have been involved in – as well as going on a training camp.
Bairstow’s Test form has been poor but, having been involved in every meaningful game of the maddest summer ever, as well as every Test tour since his debut eight years ago, if England want him back to his best he deserved that opportunity to rest sooner. In South Africa, he worked hard adjusting his red-ball technique, but a spell at home would surely have been more beneficial. Now, having dragged him around, his “rest” comes in a country where he scored a century in his only match.
Bairstow is not always the simplest to manage, but England do not make managing him simple, either.
In Sri Lanka, England found a brilliant blend of bowlers. The seamers kept things tight, picked up some early wickets, and Ben Stokes acted as a battering ram. Then the spin offering was varied: Moeen Ali, the leader, with off-spin; Jack Leach with left-arm orthodox; and Adil Rashid, the wildcard leggie. The three shared 48 wickets.
Only Leach remains – and even that was not always certain after a winter troubled by illness. Rashid is happy playing white-ball cricket for England, and in domestic short-form competitions. His shoulder is too fragile to risk.
Moeen is another case entirely. Before he took a break from Test cricket in August – he had to be taken out of the firing line against an Australia side all over him – Moeen had more wickets than any other Test bowler in the previous calendar year.
Moeen subsequently lost his lucrative England Test contract and decided that the low scrutiny, big buck world of franchise cricket would make for a nice break after six years on the international treadmill. England have been unable to persuade him to end his self-imposed hiatus; for an experienced player without a central contract, the remuneration does not match the effort and pressure at Test level. England should severely regret not having the foresight to give him that contract.
Leach, instead, will be joined by Dom Bess – who surpassed expectations with a strong performance against South Africa – and Matt Parkinson, who is ever present this winter but uncapped. Liam Dawson, who is in demand on the franchise circuit, is said to have been lukewarm about the idea of carrying drinks in Sri Lanka, so is not going.
England will head to Sri Lanka with happy memories and a strong squad. Not as quite as strong as it could have been, though.