English Cricket In Strong State Ahead Of Test Opener

England’s cricketers held an unusual 3-day intra-squad match as they ramped up their preparations for the test series against West Indies, starting on the 8th July at the Ageas Bowl Southampton.

The teams; named Team Stokes and Team Buttler after their respective captains, with players split relatively evenly, to ensure a balanced contest, with 14 players per side and 11 batters out of these. On the back of this, the 13-man squad for the first test was announced. The game ended in a draw, but the result was not the important outcome. So, what did we learn from the match and what can we expect to see from the side when the competitive action gets going?

The main takeaway from the exercise to me is that England’s depth is in a much better state than it has been in quite some time. Fielding two arguably test strengths sides against each other is a hugely encouraging sign for the selectors and fans alike. Many players who went on the England Lions tour of Australia earlier this year displayed their ability to compete at an international level, in doing so putting pressure on the current incumbents in the test squad.

James Bracey was a surprise selection for many in the initial training squad but has impressed in training and continued to do so during the first innings, compiling 85 in his side’s first innings total of 287-5 declared against a bowling attack including Jimmy Anderson, Ben Stokes and Jack Leach. The Gloucestershire batsman and Loughborough University graduate showed good patience and technique in tough conditions, something which belied his current first-class average of 35.45.

This type of selection is certainly a risk based on the statistics, but selectors Ed Smith and James Taylor are clearly employing a policy of potential and temperament over raw numbers.

Elsewhere Essex’s Dan Lawrence also backed up outstanding performances in Australia to remind the selectors of his abilities. Looking remarkably fluent considering the time away from the middle he compiled 58 before succumbing to Anderson. Joe Denly also achieved his seemingly customary start in making 48.

As far as the bowlers were concerned Anderson showed he still has it in taking 2-49, and Craig Overton put his case forward for a test return with 2-32. Jack Leach may have been disappointed with his figures as he was played with relative ease during his 15 overs, conceding 57 runs at 3.8 runs per over.

When it was Team Stokes’ team to bat it was again a case of players making starts but not going on. Zak Crawley top-scored with 43 with Stokes himself making 41 and Wicketkeeper Ben Foakes 38. Against what I feel was the much stronger bowling attack of Stuart Broad, Jofra Archer, Mark Wood, Chris Woakes and Dom Bess in addition to outsiders Ollie Robinson, Amar Virdi and Matt Parkinson.

The second innings of both sides were played out on the third day with a slight focus on faster scoring. Most batsmen again made starts, with the standout performances being Ollie Pope, who made 55 not out, and Ben Stokes who looked imperious in making 33 not out off just 17 balls.

With these two batting at 5 and 6, West Indies may have a tough time restricting England’s scoring if given a suitable platform.

The batting in the 13-man squad selected on the back of this warm-up match has a similar look to that of the last test match over the winter in South Africa. With Joe Root absent as he is attending the birth of his second child, and the return of Rory Burns, there is still room for both Zak Crawley and Joe Denly.

However, when Root returns it is likely one of the players will have to be dropped. This is a decision for another time, but it may well be that the selectors look to the potential of 22-year-old Crawley over Denly, despite the consistency and solidity of the latter.

The main bowling omission is Jack Leach. Leach has endured a very difficult winter following health issues during the tours of New Zealand and South Africa before the cancelled tour of Sri Lanka. Unfortunately following the announcement of the 13-man squad Leach has missed out to his Somerset teammate Dom Bess following his performances in South Africa.

It is certainly harsh on Leach, but Bess has forced his way in having displayed the ability to both take wickets and restrict runs over the winter.

Selecting four bowlers to accompany all-rounder Ben Stokes for the first test will be a challenge for the selectors. A lot depends on the desired balance of the attack, with two out and outpace options in Archer and Wood, the seam and swing combinations of Anderson, Broad and Woakes, as well as the choice of spinner out of Leach, Bess and Moeen Ali.

Following the squad announcement, it appears two bowlers will miss out from Anderson, Broad, Archer, Bess, Woakes and Wood.

Personally, I feel Anderson and Broad have too much credit in the bank to be dropped. Their knowledge of how to bowl in England is unparalleled, and while these two are still bowling well and showing the hunger they are, they should still be selected.

This leaves just one other pace bowling spot assuming a spinner is chosen, between Woakes, Archer and Wood. It is fair to say this is not a bad dilemma to have, all of these are high-class bowlers who could do a fantastic job for England and already have done in their test careers up to this point.

I think I would go with Archer. Whilst Wood can match him and at times better him for pace the movement Archer seems to get slightly sets him apart for me, and he offers more variety to the attack than Woakes. As I say this is a tough call, and valid arguments can be put forward for either of these 3.

It is encouraging that there appear to be bowlers ready to step up when Anderson and Broad do inevitably retire, with Craig Overton, Saqib Mahmood and Ollie Robinson also waiting in the wings for an opportunity.

So, there is plenty to be optimistic about ahead of the 3-test series against the West Indies, and I for one am massively excited about the return of international cricket, albeit in a slightly different guise to when we last saw it.

This article was written exclusively for golear.co.uk by Will Edwards.