Northerners have taken over the England team – and it is about time

Ben Stokes (left) and Mark Wood (right) in the third Ashes Test - Northerners have taken over the England team – and it is about time
Ben Stokes (left) and Mark Wood (right) are among six Northerners set to be in the England side for the fourth Ashes Test - Getty Images /Richard Heathcote

Not since the 1880s has England’s Test team contained so few Southerners as they will at Old Trafford, assuming Ollie Robinson - following another back spasm in the third Test - is dropped in favour of James Anderson or Josh Tongue.

It depends on where you draw the geographical lines: to say England is divided simply into North and South is a bit basic. If we make it three categories, to include the Midlands, then England’s team for the fourth Test will include only one Southerner, Zak Crawley.

It also depends how certain people, in this age of social mobility, are categorised. Sir Alastair Cook was born in Gloucester, but that does not make him a West Country Wurzel with straw sticking out of his helmet. He lived there only a few weeks before relocating to Bedford.

In this England team the one who is difficult to categorise is Ben Duckett. Like Crawley he was born in Kent, but he went to school at Stowe, near Buckingham, and was playing for Northamptonshire from Under-11 onwards, before moving to Nottinghamshire. For these purposes he is a Midlander.

Ben Duckett at Lords - Northerners have taken over the England team - and it is about time
England opener Ben Duckett was born in the South but plays his cricket in the Midlands - Reuters/Peter Cziborra

The historian of the England Test team, Simon Wilde, who wrote the highly acclaimed “England - The Biography”, knows of no analysis of all the Test players on a geographical basis, but he is confident that such a bias as that which we will see this coming week has never occurred since the 1880s.

There was good reason for that late Victorian bias towards the North. The England touring team was not selected then by MCC. The squad for 1884-5 was selected by two Nottinghamshire cricketers, Alfred Shaw and Arthur Shrewsbury, who chose their players entirely from Notts and Yorkshire, with the exceptions of Jonny Briggs from Lancashire and Maurice Read, a batsman from Surrey. They were all professionals; and, what is more, going into the fifth Test of 1884-5 (the first of all five-Test series) at 2-2, they won the decider.

“A better side than this, alike for defence and attack, could not then, and I am certain cannot now, be chosen from the ranks of English cricketers,” wrote one pundit in 1902, who happened to be Shaw himself. And there must have been some advantage in having almost all the players from the same background, as they pulled together and defeated Australia in the fifth Test by an innings.

In the current team our geographical breakdown reads as follows. North: Jonny Bairstow, Harry Brook, Joe Root, Ben Stokes and Mark Wood, and James Anderson if he is selected. Midlands: Moeen Ali, Stuart Broad, Ben Duckett and Chris Woakes, and Josh Tongue if he is selected. South: Zak Crawley.

Zak Crawley in the first Ashes Test at Edgbaston
England opener Zak Crawley is set to be the only Southerner in the England team at Old Trafford - AFP/Geoff Caddick

The closest example to a bias away from the South between 1884-5 and now occurred under Douglas Jardine, a Scot. For the purposes of the Bodyline series of 1932-3 he ended up relying largely, like Shrewsbury, on men from Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire. Only Les Ames and Gubby Allen hailed from the South.

When it comes to appointing England captains however, Wilde has identified a notable bias towards the South. Of England’s 81 Test captains, “42 played for the six south-east counties of Essex, Hampshire, Kent, Middlesex, Surrey and Sussex. As late as 1988 Ray Illingworth accused the selection panel of not watching enough cricket north of Watford Gap.”

Does it matter if there is a geographical bias in selecting England Test players and captains i.e. is there any evidence that England win more games in the North and Midlands: do they feel more at home and play better? No.

When playing against Australia, England’s most successful ground is the Oval, and their least successful is Lord’s. But the conventional explanation is that the Australians have passed their peak by the time they reach the fifth Test at the Oval, having been away from home for several months, whereas they come to their peak in the second Test at Lord’s. The four other main Test grounds (which have staged more than two Tests) cluster in between Lord’s and the Oval for England’s success-rate.

Australia's Josh Hazlewood (right) celebrates after taking the wicket of England's Ben Stokes (left) - Northerners have taken over the England team - and it is about time
Ben Stokes (left) scored a magnificent 155 runs at Lords, but it was not enough to beat Australia - Reuters/Peter Cziborra

Yet there could be a modern twist. Of the last 18 Ashes Tests which England have played at home over the last decade, they have won only two in the South (Lord’s in 2013, the Oval in 2019), against three in the Midlands (Edgbaston 2015, Trent Bridge 2013 and 2015), and three in the North (Chester-le-Street 2013, Headingley 2019 and 2023), with one victory at Cardiff in 2015. There again, England have not won at Old Trafford since 1981.

Or maybe there is a southern bias after all - a bias towards South Island in New Zealand. For that is where England’s captain and head coach, Ben Stokes and Brendon McCullum, were born and, at least initially, brought up.