• After missing the 1st Test defeat due to the birth of his second child, Joe Root will slot into the top four at the expense of Joe Denly
  •  Ben Stokes largely impressed on his captaincy debut, but England continue to be slow starters – the defeat in Southampton was their fifth opening Test loss in a row
  • Stuart Broad’s omission was the biggest surprise at the Ageas Bowl – expect England to revert to type after missing chances on the final day to snatch victory
MANCHESTER, ENGLAND – England welcome regular captain and best top-order batsman Joe Root back for this must-win match, but despite failing with the bat in Southampton, the tougher decisions lie with the bowling attack (and perhaps even who wears the gloves)

 

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Good to see COVID-19 hasn’t changed the old familiar feelings of being an England Test cricket fan. Another series opens with a Test defeat: England have now lost the curtain-raiser in five consecutive series (West Indies home and away, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa). People may well point to Ben Stokes’ decision at the toss to bat and to leave out Stuart Broad for the first time in 52 home Tests as the main reasons for England’s defeat, but the truth is far more complex and requires some tough introspection.

Meanwhile, all credit must go to Jason Holder and his fantastic West Indies team. Not only did they make the decision to travel to the UK, quarantine for two weeks, and stay exclusively in a bio-secure Old Trafford with intra-squad friendlies their only means of preparation, they played with determination and composure alongside the traditional West Indies qualities of talent and flair. Match-winner Jermaine Blackwood epitomised this: after an impetuous first-innings dismissal, smacking spinner Dom Bess straight down the throat of James Anderson at mid-off, he totally took the sting out of a potential England comeback when he came to the crease at a perilous 27-3 while still playing some exuberant shots during his knock of 95. Impressive enough without the context of this having been his first Test in almost three years.

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Having said that, I still fully expect England to bounce back and win the series, especially with skipper Joe Root back, although more for his batting than his captaincy. England’s top order looked painfully short of experience when up against tough conditions in the first innings – but it’s the English summer, you’ve got to expect days where the skies will be grey and the ball will dominate against the bat for a period. It’s how you counteract that, and England without Root don’t have enough dynamism to put pressure back on the bowling side – the West Indies dictated most of the entire first two days, and you can’t expect to win a Test match from that position.

Ch-ch-ch-changes

So what will England do differently? With Root back in the side, it’s a meek and predictable farewell to Joe Denly‘s Test career: two starts, and two cheap dismissals – in fact, his second innings score of 29 was the sixth time in eight innings the 33-year-old has passed 25 without scoring more than 40. Despite averaging below 30 and no Test centuries to his name, Denly’s been offered more time in the England top order than Adam LythMark StonemanAlex HalesJason RoyTom WestleySam Robson – the list could go on.

Before the series started it was seen as a straight battle between Denly and Zak Crawley, but it was a no-contest between the two Kent teammates. At the age of 22, there is far more promise in backing Crawley, especially given his well constructed and England top-scoring 76 at the Ageas Bowl. Denly has shown a key flaw to the nip-backer which he hasn’t addressed during his 18-month stint in the side, whereas Crawley looks fairly well-rounded and with room to grow.

But key to his development is keeping him at no.4, where he looked so assured in Southampton. Root’s obsession with wanting to have some time in the pavilion so he can switch off from captaincy duties is harming his team, and the individual chances of the young lads he is trying to nurture. He is the senior player in that top order: so how can he justify going out behind Rory BurnsDom Sibley and Crawley? It’s obvious Root feels more comfortable at no.4, as reflected in his averages (50.03 at no.4 and only 38.13 at no.3). But 38.13 is still a better record than any of the other top-order batsmen can muster so far in their fledgling Test careers. He must shoulder the responsibility of his young team, and trust in the exciting middle order of Ollie Pope and Ben Stokes to build on the foundation he sets, even if it means scoring fewer runs himself.

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The other batsman currently making up that middle order is wicketkeeper Jos Buttler. From an England fan’s perspective, he is probably the most frustrating member of the team at the moment. His talent with the white ball is there for all to see, with multiple England and world records held by the Taunton-born ‘keeper for fastest hundreds and best strike rates.

But he simply hasn’t transferred his skills to suit the Test arena, having made his debut six years ago. In fact, that 2014 series vs India was the one and only time Buttler has averaged over 40 at home (minimum three matches). His first ever innings in England whites were a sign of things to come: 85 off 83 deliveries, channeling that aggressive, innovative side that always comes to the fore when vice-captaining the ODI side. But neither have valuable lower-order runs nor quick, counter-attacking contributions been seen by Buttler’s bat since, with his Test strike rate now lower than three others competing in this series (Stokes, Holder and Blackwood). At the very least, you’d expect him to top this list.

His work with the gloves isn’t exactly exemplary too. Buttler dropped Blackwood in the 2nd innings while on 20: a 75-run error while defending 200 is a mistake you can’t afford to make behind the stumps. England have the widely accepted best ‘keeper in the country in Ben Foakes waiting in the wings, who averages 41 in Test cricket and has as many centuries in 10 innings as Buttler has in 75. Foakes’ consistent omission since January 2019 after two disappointing Tests in the Caribbean is, for many, the most baffling of all decisions.

However, England coach Chris Silverwood still has faith in Buttler, so don’t expect Foakes to replace him any time soon. In fact, according to the England boss, it will only take one good knock to resurrect Buttler’s form:

“Jos looked brilliant in practice coming into the game [Buttler made scores of 24* and 35 in the intra-squad warm-up match]. He just needs to go on and make those big scores now, doesn’t he? He knows that. From our point of view it’s just making sure he feels confident in the environment he’s in. We’ll give him the best chance to succeed and then if he has a day out and gets some runs the rest will be history. I’m not going to go down the road of putting Jos under pressure because I don’t think that will help him. First and foremost we want to give him the best chance to succeed but, yes, we have a very good gloveman here in Ben Foakes.”

Hot wheels or hot air?

The most unpredictable part of England’s team selection for the match at Old Trafford is who will make up England’s bowling line-up. The home side are in the unusual position of having a full rota of fast bowlers, with nobody currently tied to the treatment table. In Southampton, Ed Smith and the board of selectors decided pace (or ‘wheels,’ as us cricket nerds love to call it) was the answer in the form of Jofra Archer and Mark Wood, with the pair being branded as the quickest England duo ever in some quarters.

But, aside from Archer’s opening spell on Sunday, England’s pair of hot wheels left us short in supply on the wickets front, something that the omitted Stuart Broad has rarely been lacking, especially in recent times. BBC’s Jonathan Agnew called it a ‘pretty brutal decision’ and with 48 Test wickets at an average of 23 in the last 12 months, it’s hard to disagree with that assessment.

However, his admonishment of the decision to leave him out in front of the Sky cameras was misplaced, if refreshingly honest. I have linked to the YouTube version of Broad’s interview because it becomes so much more powerful hearing and seeing the thought process of a man who had played 51 consecutive home Test matches at home, only to be left out for a pair who took match figures of 5-216. Whether the England hierarchy will have enjoyed that particular interview as much as Sky’s viewers is certainly up for debate.

Both stand-in captain and coach have unsurprisingly doubled-down on Broad’s exclusion, but Silverwood did defend Broad’s fervent comments:  “I think Stuart handled himself very well. What I did love about the interview, and the subsequent conversations I’ve had with him, is that passion. The drive is still there and Stuart still has a big role to play in this team. I’ve made that very clear to him.”

Whether that role involves turning this West Indies series around remains to be seen, but I would be surprised if England backed down from Wood and Archer after just one game together, especially when both will be needed if England want to win Down Under next winter. Chopping and changing is just not the way this England side have gone about it.

The second Test match at Old Trafford is from 16-20 July.

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