(Photo: Getty Images)
By Alison Mitchell
Joe Root has been in charge of England’s Test side for both home and away seasons now. After going a whole winter without a Test win, it is time to see him make the changes and enforce the ideas he promised post-Ashes.
Leading up to the start of the New Zealand series, Root declared in an interview that he had ideas for the team in the wake of the Ashes defeat.
It isn’t clear what, if anything, he has specifically changed yet. The starting XI going into the first Test in Auckland barely differed from the personnel that were unsuccessful in the Ashes, although the return of Ben Stokes meant Root went to No.3, but that only lasted as long as the captain felt it had to, namely one Test.
England’s last win abroad came against Bangladesh in October 2016. The failure to take 10 wickets in New Zealand’s second innings in Christchurch means the side has now gone 13 away Tests without a victory.
Although England secured series wins at home against South Africa and the West Indies last summer, the failure to record a single victory since September means the county season will start with opportunities for both batsmen and bowlers to impress England’s yet-to-be-appointed new national selectors and scouts ahead of the first Test against Pakistan in May.
So what could the Test team look like come Lord’s? It has been heartening to see Mark Wood bowling in Test cricket again, and providing he remains fit, he brings the extra pace that England sorely missed in Australia where the attack lacked bite when the Kookaburra didn’t swing. Wood bowled a lot of short balls in Christchurch, but the batsmen were wise to it, meaning he didn’t overly threaten as a result.
If he concentrates on bowling fast and attacking the stumps, a quartet of Anderson, Broad, Wood and Stokes (presuming he is back to full bowling fitness) would be a strong way to start the summer, with Jack Leach deserving of further opportunity to show himself as a steady left-arm spinner who can either attack or defend as necessary.
Such an attack consisting of a skilful new-ball pair along with Wood’s pace and Leach’s spin, could also work for the slow pitches of Sri Lanka and West Indies, where England tour next winter.
The difficulty with that bowling attack is that it could look totally different by the end of the summer. Broad’s work on his action seems to have paid off, judging by the wickets he took in Christchurch and the way he felt the ball was coming out, but will Wood’s fitness hold up? What will the outcome of Stokes’ court case be? England still need the experience and skill of Anderson, so it is just as well he has professed a desire to be around for the 2019 home Ashes at the age of 37.
Anderson’s remarkable fitness makes that a distinct likelihood. He just has to come through what is likely to be another arduous winter first. For all the lack of out-and-out pace in the county game, variety could yet be offered in the future with the height of Craig Overton, or the left-arm angle and pace of Sussex’s George Garton, who is still very young at 20, but who trained with the England squad during the Ashes.
The cupboard is not quite as bare as some would make out.
The batting line-up is where most change could occur before the first Test of the summer. Alastair Cook’s class is unquestionable yet his form this winter has been boom or bust. When he did boom in Melbourne, as impressive a feat as his double hundred was, it was on a flat pitch with Pat Cummins throwing up ill on the boundary edge and Mitchell Starc absent through injury.
Saying that, no one else managed to score so big. Every England supporter will be hoping Cook finds his way to making runs more consistently again. He is an England great, and you want the greats to go on as long as they possibly can.
Cook has spoken before about wanting to leave the camp in a good place. He is unlikely to retire unless he feels he is holding the side back by staying on. That is something that will only be determined by one or more players demanding Test selection.
With Mark Stoneman’s place not set in concrete, a close eye will be kept on the early season form of Haseeb Hameed and Keaton Jennings. Hameed left England’s tour of India in 2016 with a broken finger while Jennings replaced him for six Tests until he was dropped after the fourth Test v South Africa last summer.
Hameed had a quiet first-class season with Lancashire in 2017, averaging less than 30, and although he didn’t manage a half century on the Lions tour of the West Indies this winter, he recently struck 126 on pre-season tour in the UAE. Jennings notched up 129 in a tour match for the Lions in the West Indies, but neither he nor Hameed pulled up trees in the first-class matches, and then Jennings struggled to score in the limited-overs leg.
It is unfortunate for Nick Gubbins that he is missing the start of Middlesex’s season with another untimely hamstring strain. He suffered a similar injury last summer just as he was being talked about as a candidate to make a Test debut against the West Indies.
Challengers for James Vince’s place at No.3 will include Worcestershire’s Joe Clarke who was man of the series in the recent North v South limited-overs matches in the UAE.
Essex’s Tom Westley has a chance to press for a return, and his team-mate Dan Lawrence is another middle-order batsman with potential.
Vince looked like the million-dollar man we all know he can be en route to his second-innings 76 in Christchurch. He is averaging mid twenties across 13 Tests, but there is demand for a century and for him to show that he has the concentration levels to bat long more often.
He will be one of the first to resume county duties when he features for Hampshire in the opening round of matches. A big score would be most welcome. For all batsmen, though, April is not an easy time to make hundreds. Runs in traditionally seaming conditions ought to be worth double value.
Until other batsmen start bashing the door down, though, the team who played in Christchurch could well be the one that takes to the field at Lord’s. Unless Root has other ideas of course.