Ben Jones looks at England’s selection debates going into the third Test.
Despite the crushing defeat in the second Test, England have cause to be optimistic. On a tour where four straight losses was the most likely result, to have registered a victory in the opening Test represents qualified success.
The next Test, played with a pink ball under day-night conditions in Ahmedabad, was always going to be a target for Joe Root’s side, given their substantial depth in pace bowling, and general discomfort batting against spin. With that in mind, to be heading into the third Test 1-0 down would have been an enticing offer before a ball was bowled; the position in which they find themselves, is even better.
However, they have some big calls to make. The nature of their rotation policy for the winter, on top of unexpected injuries, has meant that every Test has required some degree of dexterity from the selectors, tweaking the XI in response to strategy and circumstance. The notion of a “first-choice” side is an unhelpful one in an era of workload management and “horses for courses” selection, but you would suggest that the squad of players England have available for the third Test is their strongest for any match on this tour so far. Jos Buttler has been replaced by the more than capable Ben Foakes, and despite all the fuss surrounding the nature of Moeen Ali’s departure, few would have had the all-rounder in their starting XI for the series with everyone fit and firing. Indeed, the only controversy to rival Moeen not being available for the third Test, was the fact he was picked for the second. Add in the return of Mark Wood and Jonny Bairstow, and England have plenty to choose from.
And so this is the moment where England’s selectors and coaches make their money: a series which is improbably still alive, an overseasTest which is unusually suited to the strengths of England’s bowling attack, and a player group as close to full strength as they will have this winter.
So which way are they going to go?
The previous day-night test in India saw all of the hosts’ wickets come from seamers, as Bangladesh subsided. However, that Test was held in Kolkata in November, while this will be held in rather different conditions, in a different season.
Our data would suggest that a key characteristic of the pink ball in Test cricket is moving substantially early on, then flattening out far more than the regular red ball. However, that conclusion is skewed by the fact that more than half the day-nights Tests which have been played have been in Australia, using the Kookaburra ball, a ball which has always tended to stop moving after 30 overs, red or pink. So far, it is hard to tell if the SC will act similarly – of the three innings we saw in the Kolkata Test, two were less than 45 overs long. The window to see how an old SG ball performs in the hands of top class Test bowlers, was very slim indeed. We are entering the unknown.
Added to the lack of knowledge regarding the ball, is a lack of knowledge around the venue. The new stadium is a vast, beautiful structure but its cricketing characteristics are still up for grabs. Early pictures of the surface five days out from the Test were barely distinguishable from the outfield, but – shock – more recent images look drier, and more conducive to spin. It’s a fools errand to try and assess the quality of a pitch before a ball is bowled, and that’s only emphasised by the lack of any previous examples.
All of that uncertainty will be informing England’s selection. James Anderson is the only absolute lock for the third Test, having been rested during the second. Beyond him, everything else is up for debate.
Of all the matches in Sri Lanka and India, this would appear the most suitable for England to select only one spinner in their XI. While Ben Stokes does allow England to pick a “3-and-2” attack, as they have done in the two matches so far, they may be reluctant to have him as one of only three seamers in a match where more pace will be bowled. With that greater emphasis likely to be placed on seam than spin, the need for both Jack Leach and Dom Bess (plus Root) is less. Based on performance in this series so far, the sole spinner is almost certainly going to be Leach.
What’s more, England’s experience of day-night Tests is only going to push them further in this direction. In the three Tests they have played with the pink ball, their spinners have taken just four of the 48 wickets on offer, at an average of 66. This is of course irrelevant given the wider context, and changes in both coaching and selection personnel since England’s last pink ball game, but Root’s view may carry weight.
The sole-spinner option leaves England with a quandary, because it insists they must either a) play with a very long tail, b) drop Stuart Broad or c) lack variation in the seam attack.
The first option is straightforward. Without Bess or Moeen in the XI, the No.8 spot would likely be occupied by Jofra Archer, with Leach, Broad, and Anderson below him – Leach is the only one of these four to average above 15 with the bat since the start of 2018. This leaves England vulnerable to a tail-end collapse.
The way to remedy this would be to bring in Chris Woakes. While his batting did suffer something of a slump in 2019 – averaging just 14.77 across the year – Woakes bounced back strongly in 2020, averaging just under 30 and memorably taking England home at Old Trafford against Pakistan. While his bowling record in India is poor, he would still be well placed to make the most of any new ball movement and would balance the side with the presence of that batting depth.
However, the question of who Woakes would replace is not easily answered. In terms of general hierarchy among the bowlers, Archer would seem the obvious player to drop out, but English cricket has been burned far too often in recent times by selecting four 84mph right-arm seamers and a finger spinner away from home.
Luckily, England are not forced into this option, because for once, they have pace to burn. Only a handful of bowlers in the world are quicker than Mark Wood in Test cricket, and with the uncertainty about how the old pink ball may behave, and his ability to reverse the red ball another consideration, England may see Wood as less of a gamble on conditions. If lateral movement is not readily available, that doesn’t particularly affect Wood’s approach. Jofra Archer, a few kph slower but a superior red ball bowler, is more reliant on seam movement – in this unique situation, there is a case for Wood over Archer. What should not be up for debate is the need for one of them to play.
Which brings us to Stuart Broad, who had a tough week in Chennai. He’s played 145 Test matches, and only four times has he bowled fewer deliveries across a game. On the face of it, it would be very harsh to say this was anything other than a blip, blamed on an extreme surface where there was little need for him to be involved. And yet, selecting Broad in this next Test – given that Anderson is locked – dictates that England either have a long tail (Archer, Leach, Broad, Anderson) or a slower attack lacking in variation (Woakes, Leach, Broad, Anderson), the sort they have tried to avoid under Silverwood. Across this winter so far England have stuck to picking only one of their record-breaking seamers at a time, to ensure balance; in the 10 overseas Tests since Silverwood took over, Broad and Anderson have played together only twice. While the pink ball may tip the balance, selecting Broad would be a twist on what has worked so well for England in their recent series away from home.
The return of Bairstow (from being rested) and Zak Crawley (from a wrist injury) leaves Chris Silverwood and co with options for the batting order. While Dan Lawrence is clearly a talented batsman who will play plenty more Test cricket, he is a No.4 or No.5 who has averaged 36 in the last two County Championship seasons – expecting him to perform out of position and at the moment slightly out of his depth, was always a long shot. He’ll likely drop out.
From there, it’s almost certainly two of Bairstow, Crawley, and Rory Burns who will make the cut, and it’s the latter whose case is shakiest. Burns is averaging just 24 since the start of last year, with just two fifties in 13 innings. While he is far from the first left-hander to struggle against Ravichandran Ashwin, but three dismissals in three innings, following on from consistent issues against off spin in Test cricket, will have England concerned. Ashwin’s excellence against left-handers is well known, but the extent to which he’s dominated England’s left-handers this series (nine wickets at 9.11, compared to eight wickets at 27.62 against the right-handers) might tip the balance in Crawley’s favour, with the Kent man coming back to open the batting alongside Dom Sibley.
Crawley is unlikely to find it much easier against Ashwin. In FC cricket, Crawley averages 30.77 against off spin, hardly a record which insists it will take down perhaps the best off spinner in the world. Yet England should at least consider the manner of those runs – coming at 3.9rpo – and think that an attacking option may be England’s best hope of countering Ashwin. Crawley has begun his international career by making a mockery of his domestic record more broadly, and England may back him to do so with regards to his game against spin.
Away from the opening berth, the return of Bairstow is intriguing. Optimistically, Bairstow has an excellent record against Ashwin, averaging 71.50 from 12 innings, and 245 deliveries. Only five batsmen (min 200 balls) have a better record against Ashwin, and with the slight exception of Matt Renshaw, they are all renowned players of spin: Michael Clarke, Ricky Ponting, Jos Buttler, Joe Root, and Renshaw. Bairstow’s inclusion is an upgrade in terms of England’s strength against the turning ball.
However, there are significant worries elsewhere. Bairstow’s record against the Indian seamers in this squad is not good at all. Mohammed Shami is the only bowler against whom Bairstow has performed well, and even that may be taking a batting average of 30 a little too far. For all the clear strengths against spin, Bairstow’s record against Bumrah – two dismissals in 11 balls – may prevent him from facing very much of it.
While there is clear risk for Bairstow coming back into a batting order at No.3, given his issues against these Indian seamers, it feels all but nailed on. Anything else would require perseverance with an out of form Rory Burns, or a radical reshuffle to bring Ollie Pope up to No.3, a role which he may assume in Asia further down the line but which feels beyond him at this stage.
It would seem that, across the boars with bat and with ball, England would be best advised to take the attacking option: long tail, and strokemakers in the top three.
Likely XI: Crawley, Sibley, Bairstow, Root, Stokes, Pope, Foakes, Archer, Leach, Broad, Anderson.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.