Ben Stokes, Jonny Bairstow, Jos Buttler, Sam Curran, Jofra Archer and Chris Woakes – six of England’s first choice Test XI will not be a part of the two-Test series against New Zealand starting at Lord’s from the 2nd of June. While some of these players are injured, there are others whose services could have been called upon but are being rested citing bio-bubble fatigue given the arduous schedule for England in the summer leading upto the World T20 and the Ashes. But is there a sense of over-confidence in the England cricket team? Or are they not taking the New Zealand challenge too seriously? Why could they have not rested some their big names in the limited overs’ series against Sri Lanka and Pakistan? And would the ECB have ‘rested’ six top players if the summer began facing India?
The Big Six Missing
Jofra Archer and Ben Stokes are the only players amongst the big six who will be out due to injury which as it is was a massive blow for England – Archer has been their highest impact bowler since debut and Stokes the best all-rounder in the world across formats. While the right-arm fast bowler – England’s hero in the 2019 World Cup and the Ashes that followed – underwent surgery on his right elbow which ruled him out of the two-Test series, Stokes was also ruled out of action for 12 weeks in mid April due to a broken left index finger.
But what about the others?
The quarantine of the England players who featured in the IPL was completed by the weekend of 15th-16th May giving them enough time to recuperate before the New Zealand series. Also with Stokes ruled out, England could have definitely done with the services of at least two of the other three all-rounders – Chris Woakes, Sam Curran and Moeen Ali – but none of them are a part of the squad.
Buttler and Bairstow – two destructive match-winners for England with the bat were both not included in the squad as England did not want to rush their star players back into action. As it turned out, Ben Foakes, their first choice wicket-keeper tore his hamstring in a freak injury and was ruled out for three months which now means that either Sam Billings – who is yet to play a Test for England – or uncapped James Bracey will stand behind the stumps against New Zealand.
Why Not Give Rest During Pakistan and Sri Lanka Series?
England wanted to give adequate rest to their players who returned from playing the IPL. That would have made sense had the T20 league in India gone through its normal duration and ended in the last week of May, but with it postponed due to the bio-bubble breach and some players and staff testing positive, it was actually a blessing in disguise and an opportunity for England to include some of the big names and make a big statement at the start of the summer.
The rest could have been given during the limited over series against Pakistan and Sri Lanka as England have the quality and pedigree in limited-overs to beat those teams even with half their main XI – that however cannot be said about their Test credentials.
England – Not A Dominant Force in Test Cricket
While England are the current ODI champions and the number one team in the ICC T20I rankings, their test fortunes have fluctuated over the last few years. They were beaten 3-1 in India and lost a Test against a low-ranked West Indies at home in the summer of 2020. Even more significantly, they were beaten 1-0 in their last two series in New Zealand (in 2019 and 2018) and that was reason enough for them to come out with full force in the two-match series at home. Moreover, the last time New Zealand toured England in 2015, they beat them at Leeds and drew the series 1-1. Given the recent history would it not be natural for England to go all-out and try and put their best foot forward to beat New Zealand?
Instead England are using the series as practice to test some new faces for the upcoming five-Test series against India in August and the Ashes in December. The series (against New Zealand) also is not part of the World Test Championship so does not merit the same worth but a 0-2 loss, which is a very realistic possibility against a full-strength New Zealand side – would not be ideal preparation at the start of the summer.
There is no way England would have rested/left out so many big names (8 including Foakes and Ali) if the summer started against India – irrespective of the series being part of the World Test Championship or not!
England will now have to make the most of what they have and hope that some of the new faces in the squad step up and make it count. But who are these players and what have they done to merit a place in the Test squad? Let us explore.
Sam Billings is a talented wicket-keeper batsman who has represented England in 22 ODIs and 30 T20Is but is yet to play for the country in whites. He has a good first-class record given his additional work behind the stumps – Billing has an average close to 35 and has registered six hundreds in the England domestic circuit. Essentially seen as a 50-over specialist, Billings was in fine form in first-class cricket in 2019 registering three centuries in as many innings including two in the same match for Kent against Yorkshire at Leeds in 2019.
James Bracey is the second wicket-keeper batsman in the squad and has an aggregate of 2575 runs in 45 first-class matches at an average of almost 37 with six hundreds.
Bracey’s temperament and patience are his biggest strengths and they were in display in his heroic effort with the bat when his unbeaten 125 off 271 deliveries helped Gloucestershire save the match against Middlesex after following-on at Lord’s.
Haseeb Hameed isn’t exactly a new face but will be making a comeback into the England Test set-up. He made his debut against India at Rajkot in 2016 giving a good account of himself aggregating more than 100 runs in the match. Hameed also scored a fighting undefeated 59 in an otherwise poor batting display by England in Mohali. The 24-year old had a great season in the County Championship in 2016 scoring 1198 runs in 16 matches for Lancashire with four hundreds and 7 fifties. At the time he was widely being labelled as one of the finest opening talents in the country.
Bowling all-rounder, Craig Overton would also be making a comeback having last played in the Ashes in September, 2019. Overton, a right-arm medium-fast bowler did not impress much in the four Tests he played for England bagging just 9 wickets. Overton had a fine season with the ball for Somerset in 2015 picking 43 wickets in 11 matches at 21.69. He again impressed with 46 wickets at 22.39 in the 2017 County Championships which was his entry to play for England – he made his Test debut in the Ashes Test in Adelaide later in the year.
Right-arm fast-medium, Oliver Robinson is another uncapped player in the England contingent. He was in the limelight after his brilliant performance in the county season in 2019 where (in the Division Two Championship) he bagged 63 wickets in 11 matches at an average of 16.44 with six five-wicket hauls. Robinson picked seven wickets in a thumping victory for England Lions over Australia A at the MCG in 2020. Regarded as one of the finest new-ball bowlers in the domestic circuit, Robinson has a tally of 279 wickets in 63 first-class matches at an average of 21.04.
If England do go down in the two-Test series against New Zealand, not only would that set them back for the marquee five-match series against India starting August, but also give New Zealand a big advantage and massive momentum going into the final of the World Test Championship against India starting June 18 in Southampton.