• With England’s IPL players given an extended period of rest after spending most of the English winter in various bio-secure ‘bubbles’, Chris Silverwood has given opportunities to players on the outskirts of England selection
  • Watch for Gloucestershire’s wicketkeeper-batsman James Bracey and Sussex’s Ollie Robinson, both in line for their Test debut on Wednesday at Lord’s
  • Of those already with a Test cap, fast bowlers Olly Stone and Craig Overton along with batsman Dan Lawrence will be hoping for big performances ahead of an upcoming Ashes series Down Under
LONDON, ENGLAND – England’s revamped selection panel have decided to put faith in its fringe players for the two Test series against New Zealand, but Chris Silverwood and Joe Root need wins now more than ever

 

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After a miserable May, most of us have spent our bank holiday dusting off our shorts and sunglasses as temperatures creep past 20 degrees in what feels like the first time since lockdown #1. In atypical fashion then, we welcome the start of the English summer of cricket this week with – hopefully – the worst of the weather behind us.

Whether England’s performance will shine just as much as the big yellow thing in the sky is finally threatening to do is anybody’s guess. This is largely because England’s new selection panel, sans Ed Smith and led by head coach Chris Silverwood, have decided to give their IPL participants the early summer off, despite the tournament being cut short four weeks ago due to rising Covid cases in the country.

This means the all-round talent of Sam CurranChris Woakes and Moeen Ali, who can shift momentum with bat or ball, are all missing, as well as the star quality of Jonny Bairstow and Jos Buttler, who both also provide buckets of experience and are England’s prominent glovesmen these days.

Silverwood’s third-choice ‘keeper, Surrey’s Ben Foakes, had a freak hamstring injury while in The Oval changing room – he is said to have tore the muscle after slipping in his socks. While an accident like this can never be prepared for, it does mean Silverwood’s side, on the cusp of facing World Test Championship finalists and the no.2 ranked Test team in world cricket, must do so with a debutant wicket-keeper who was initially picked to bolster a misfiring top order.

Brace yourselves

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Gloucestershire’s James Bracey, who fully warrants selection after almost 500 County Championship runs in bowler friendly early-season conditions, will now have to take the gloves and with it, drop down the order. Although the argument of protecting bright young things from the dangers of the new ball does bring some merit – especially with the experience of Tim Southee and Neil Wagner steaming in – moving Bracey from a position he normally lines up for his county in is both disruptive and potentially misleading. Batting at no.7 is a totally different role in Test cricket to batting in the top four. You have to help guide the tail, and you may not have much time at the crease as lower-order wickets fall around you. Bracey deserves time at the crease, and at Lord’s this week, he might not get it.

Not only this, but the Home of Cricket is said to be one of the hardest players to keep wicket, with the ball often wobbling viciously on the ‘keeper after the ball passes the bat – and has made the likes of MS Dhoni, a true cricketing great, look very silly indeed. Speaking to Sky Sports, Bracey readily admitted the added challenge of taking the gloves wasn’t something he was expecting.

“When I heard about Ben it was a bit of a shock. I didn’t really have it on my radar to be there as keeper. When I got the call it didn’t really sink in straight away but once I’d arrived in London it started to become a distinct possibility.

“I’m really excited, but gutted for Ben. I had a lot of times this winter, trying to calculate how I’m getting in the team and how I’m going to get that opportunity. A lot of the time it happens when you don’t expect it and hopefully that time is now. I’ve benefitted from Ben having a freak accident and it’s an opportunity for me to not only show what I can do with the gloves but the bat.”

However, from Bracey’s comments, it certainly feels the 24-year-old isn’t shying away from the extra responsibility, and has the confidence required to make it at the highest level – whatever role he finds himself in.

“I’ve worked really hard on my keeping in the last couple of years since coming in on the Lions tour, with the other keepers and coaches, and I feel it’s in a really good place. Obviously Gloucestershire’s attack is different to England’s and it’s going to be different in terms of the pace of the pitch and the slope at Lord’s – sometimes you’ve got to work with little angles.

“But it’s all stuff that the bowlers, Rooty and other guys have given me little tips on. I’m sure when it comes to Wednesday I’ll be in a good spot and as long as I show myself to be a good keeper, it’s definitely going to help me moving forward.”

Speaking on the Tuffers and Vaughan Cricket Show, Silverwood was also keen to highlight Bracey’s adaptability.

“The one thing that’s overriding to me is how quickly he learns,” Silverwood said of Bracey, who spent time with the head coach and his England teammates in India this winter as part of an expanded squad due to Covid measures.

“He’s very diligent in the way he goes about his preparation. He’s got a very clear idea of where he wants to go and how he’s going to get there. One of the impressive things for me when we were in India was watching how someone who was quite far removed from playing still got up every day and squeezed every little bit out of that trip to make sure he came home a better player.”

Bowlers battling for position

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While the IPL cohort’s omission from the squad was an active choice (and these two men would’ve probably found themselves in this group in any case) the decision to exclude stars Jofra Archer and Ben Stokes was ultimately taken out of England’s hands. Stokes’ busted finger should recover in time for the India series later this summer, but Archer’s troublesome elbow has more of a worringly unknown recovery period.

There was a point in time, certainly after England’s woeful performance during the most recent Ashes in Australia, where the biggest question mark looming over the immediate future of the England team was in the fast bowling department. James Anderson and Stuart Broad, now 38 and 34 respectively, can’t go on forever (although they are expected, as usual, to spearhead England’s attack this summer) and there didn’t seem to be too many high quality cabs coming off the rank behind them.

Mercifully, though, this squad packs plenty of fast bowling firepower. One of those seam bowlers who didn’t have the best of times Down Under in 2018/19 was Craig Overton. The Somerset seamer has spent his time in the international wilderness honing his skills and putting on an extra yard of pace too. This feels like an important series for him to prove whether he can make the step up to the highest level.

Although Overton’s extra yard of pace hasn’t exactly made him an out-and-out quick, fellow teammates Olly Stone and Mark Wood certainly fit the bill. Wood could be excused for expecting to be the next in line given his extra experience, but Stone has impressed in his handful of England appearances and all three men will be disappointed if they don’t get a full run against a talented New Zealand outfit.

Perhaps the most intriguing selection is Ollie Robinson, who doesn’t have the pace of the aforementioned Wood and Stone, but certainly has the wickets in recent seasons to warrant his selection. Silverwood was asked by Michael Vaughan about what the Sussex medium-fast bowler can bring to this England attack.

“We’ve seen he can take wickets. His average is good, his economy is down. He’s a highly skilful bowler. If there’s any movement around, he will find it with his presentation of the seam and the height from which he delivers from. He’s still a work in progress to a certain extent but I think he’s got a lot to offer.”

If England selectors purely made their decision on who should partner Broad and Anderson on the best average, then Overton marks up well with a first-class average of 23.25, but Robinson’s is even more impressive at 21.04. Wood, who is expected to start, ranks last with 26.95, and Stone measures in at 24.62.

Striking the balance

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Whatever concoction of fast bowlers Joe Root decides to go with against the Black Caps, the lack of availability of key all-rounders means this England side will look slightly imbalanced in places. Aside from the experience the captain brings at no.4, Rory Burns, Dom Sibley, Zak Crawley, Dan Lawrence and Ollie Pope are still relatively fresh to the international stage, with a combined total of 70 caps between them. Their captain will make his 104th Test appearance on Wednesday.

This puts added pressure on Bracey at no.7 to marshal the lower order, but if England go with their four most experienced bowlers in Broad, Anderson, Wood and the spin of Jack Leach, there isn’t much batting prowess to speak of once six England wickets have fallen. New Zealand will be looking to target the soft underbelly of England’s inexperienced and short batting line-up to put added pressure on Root and Silverwood, who know they need to start winning games before an Ashes series Down Under which could define their legacy as captain and head coach of this England side.

Silverwood was astonishingly frank in admitting England may head into this short series without much balance.

“However way you cut it, the team could look a little lopsided. But I have to accept that and make the most of what we’ve got here. That no.8 spot, and we have got players capable of playing there – we’ve seen Robinson and Overton score important runs under pressure for their counties already this summer – so I’m confident that one of those could fill the no.8 spot.”

Perhaps Silverwood’s comments could suggest he isn’t too comfortable with Broad, Anderson, Wood and Leach as his four bowlers because he realises England could do with more batting depth. However, Vaughan and Phil Tufnell were both in agreement on their aforementioned discussion show that they would choose England’s four best bowlers as listed above, no matter their batting credentials.

So, whether many wins can be extracted from these next seven Tests at home against the two top ranked Test teams in the world is another question altogether. Expect England to show glimpses of their precocious talent this summer. But much like the British sunshine, its appearance may be all too fleeting.

England face New Zealand in the first of two Test matches at Lord’s from 2-6 June, and finish at Edgbaston on 10-14 June.

 

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