Despite their dramatic one-run defeat by New Zealand in Wellington last week, England are in a strong position heading into the Ashes this summer.
The adoption of an uberaggressive style of cricket has led to them winning 10 of their last 12 Test matches since head coach Brendon McCullum and captain Ben Stokes took charge of the England team last summer and completely transformed a side who had previously won just one in 17.
Players will return ahead of the summer, too, with fast bowlers Jofra Archer, finally fit again after a succession of injuries, and Mark Wood, rested for the tour of New Zealand, primed to be available. Jonny Bairstow is also on track to recover from his freak broken leg sustained playing golf last September.
So what are the big selection dilemmas ahead of the summer and what will England’s likely team be when the Ashes start at Edgbaston on 16 June?
Is Zak Crawley really going to open?
That certainly seems to be the case if McCullum is to be believed. “He is still a big player for us,” said the coach.
So if the opening batter, whose average after 33 Test matches is an underwhelming 27.60, does retain his place then that impacts other areas of selection, with one route for Bairstow to get back into the team blocked.
Whether managing director Rob Key, national selector Luke Wright, performance director Mo Bobat and Stokes – who all have a say in picking England squads – agree that Crawley should be persisted with remains to be seen. If he was to be dropped, Alex Lees, who was axed after a poor summer last year, Stokes, Bairstow and Ollie Pope would all be contenders to open alongside Ben Duckett next summer. But it appears Crawley is safe for now.
What happens if Stokes isn’t fit enough to bowl?
He is struggling with a chronic injury to his left knee but has vowed to get himself right for the summer. Yet playing in the Indian Premier League surely won’t help and there’s a chance he may be restricted to just batting in the Ashes.
If so that would have a big impact on the balance of England’s team. Until now, McCullum and Stokes have shown unyielding faith in spinner Jack Leach. Yet if Stokes can’t bowl, they will be reluctant to go with just three seamers. So that means either dropping a batter – unlikely when they are struggling to get Bairstow back in the XI – or Leach, with Joe Root, who has 53 Test wickets, tasked with bowling spin when required.
The only other way of having four seamers and Leach in the same XI would be dropping wicketkeeper Ben Foakes and handing the gloves to Pope. Unlikely, especially as it would mean potentially Chris Woakes, Sam Curran or Ollie Robinson batting at No 7.
How is the bowling attack shaping up?
Stokes was insistent his best seam attack on the tour of New Zealand was James Anderson, Stuart Broad and Ollie Robinson. Those three are currently No 1, No 4 and No 11 respectively in the rankings for Test bowlers. Things change when Archer and Wood are available.
Come the summer it seems likely that Anderson, Robinson and Archer are the best three seam-bowling options for England. If they are to play four seamers, it means Broad, Matt Potts, Wood, Olly Stone, Woakes and Curran come into the conversation.
Realistically, with five Tests in six weeks, you’d think Anderson would play three or four Tests, with Broad filling in when he needs a breather. Archer and Wood are likely to be rotated, while Robinson might be swapped out for one of the others depending on how he pulls up.
And what about Bairstow?
McCullum hinted last week he may not get straight back in on his return from injury when talking about not wanting to “crowbar” people into the XI. But let’s say he is to play, the only option now looks to be as a direct replacement for Foakes. Bairstow would be handed the gloves and would probably bat at six, with Stokes moving a place down the order.
England’s predicted team for 1st Test at Edgbaston
- Zak Crawley
- Ben Duckett
- Ollie Pope
- Joe Root
- Harry Brook
- Jonny Bairstow (w-k)
- Ben Stokes (capt)
- Chris Woakes
- Ollie Robinson
- Jofra Archer
- James Anderson
So how are England’s Ashes chances looking?
Good. As McCullum has stated, they will stick to their aggressive style. They have a wealth of options in a squad Broad insisted early on the tour of New Zealand was England’s strongest since they rose to No 1 in the world in 2011.
Injuries are inevitable, so some selection headaches will resolve themselves. But where they are right now, England should be confident of winning an Ashes series for the first time since 2015. (edited)