With just over 3 months to go before England take on South Africa in the first Test match of the summer, there’s plenty of time for someone to force themselves into the reckoning by playing well in the first few rounds of the County Championship. However, let’s pretend that the squad for the first Test is being picked tomorrow. What would the starting XI look like and why?
1 – Alastair Cook
Still only 32 and with plenty of years left in him – as long as he retains the desire to churn out those trademark mammoth innings. With the burden of captaincy lifted from his shoulders and after a long break from competitive cricket, Cook should be fit and raring to go by the time the English county season begins.
2 – Haseeb Hameed
Made such a big impression for Lancashire in his debut County Championship season that he forced his way into the winter Test match squads. Should really have played in Bangladesh but grabbed his chance with both hands in Rajkot. Played some solid and gutsy innings before a broken hand brought his tour to a premature end. Should retain his place as opener for the South Africa series.
3 – Keaton Jennings
Made a solid start to his England career in testing conditions. Should retain his place in the side for the start of the summer and be given a decent run to prove himself at number 3.
4 – Joe Root
England’s new Test captain and their best batsman. The discovery of Jennings and Hameed allows Root to move down to number 4, shielding him from the new ball and to give him a little more time to recover from the stresses of captaincy. It says something about the extraordinary standards we’ve come to expect that his batting figures from 2016 seem a little underwhelming. A career best 254 vs Pakistan, 1477 runs and an average of 49.23 sounds pretty good. But he was dismissed between 75 and 90 on five occasions and converted only 3 of 11 50+ scores into centuries. The new parent needs to take the extra responsibility of captaincy in his stride and turn more of those fledgling half-centuries into match-defining ‘daddy’ hundreds.
5 – Ben Stokes
A real match winner and talisman, capable of dragging the rest of the team with him if necessary. His true overall worth to the team isn’t reflected by his career averages so far. However, 2016 was a real bumper year, scoring 904 runs at an average of 45.2 (including that brutal 258 in Cape Town) and 33 wickets at an average of 25.81 (with some impressive performances in Bangladesh and India). The only problem will be making sure he stays fit and healthy, given his crucial role in all three formats of the game.
6 – Jonny Bairstow
2016 was the year that Jonnny Bairstow finally delivered on his undoubted talent and in the process set new markers in Test match cricket for the most runs and most dismissals by a wicket-keeper in a calendar year. A maiden Test century in Cape Town, a century at Headingley and a 167 at Durham were the stand-out performances. His wicket-keeping also showed the necessary signs of improvement, ensuring that Jonny is England’s undisputed first choice wicket-keeper for the foreseeable future.
7 – Moeen Ali
Prone to some careless dismissals as a batsman and as a spinner he’s not yet shown the ability to win a match in the 4th innings. However as an all-rounder, Moeen certainly adds value to this England side. He passed 1000 runs in 2016 and scored as many centuries as Virat Kohli and Steve Smith (albeit from more innings). Fits in well at number 7 where he has more license to play shots and currently averages 87.85. Needs to show more progress with his bowling, though. An average of 53 shows that 2016 was a tough year for Moeen and he needs to get back to the levels shown in 2014 to keep his place in the side.
8 – Chris Woakes
2016 was a superb year for Woakes. 26 wickets in the Pakistan series showed just what he’s capable of when conditions are in his favour. Stuggled in the sub-continent to a certain degree but has plenty of time and two great role models (Anderson and Broad) from whom he can learn the skills that will help him to become a complete bowler in all conditions. Averaged over 30 with the bat as an added bonus.
9 – Stuart Broad
Much like fellow pillars of the team Cook, Root, Stokes and Anderson, it’s tough to imagine picking an England XI without Stuart Broad. Capable of devastating spells of bowling leaving the opposition powerless to resist. 48 wickets at an average of 26.56 in 2016 show that Broad hasn’t lost it. The only gripe concerns his batting, which has been much less effective in the last 2 years. But Broad is in the team for his bowling and coming in at 9 or 10 his diminishing batting prowess doesn’t make too much difference.
10 – Mark Wood
Often troubled by injury and has a modest international record so far. But if England can get Mark Wood fit and in the team regularly he can be a real Ace in the pack. Not just because of his gregarious personality and imaginary horse… With his outright pace and clever variations he’s certainly worth persisting with.
11 – James Anderson
122 Test matches. 467 Test wickets. The stats speak for themselves. 41 wickets from 12 tests at an average of 23.73 in 2016 shows he’s still got it and when fit and healthy should definitely retain his place as leader of the England bowling attack. The key for England will be to manage his workload to ensure he makes it to the Ashes series at the end of the year. Resting him for the series against West Indies at the end of the summer wouldn’t be the worst idea – although the job of telling him that he won’t be able to play in the first day/night Test played in England is not enviable…
Steady if unspectacular so far to his Test career. Hasn’t shown enough maturity with the bat and has struggled for consistency with the ball. However, his wicket-haul after 10 Tests is better than that of fellow spinner Moeen Ali. Expect him to come into the team on pitches more favourable for spin. Given a longer run in the team and a more attack-minded captain he can be a match winner for England on pitches where they may otherwise struggle to take 20 wickets (The Ashes 2017-18 anybody?).
England’s backup Test match wicket-keeper. Hasn’t shown enough to justify being selected as a specialist batsman in Test-cricket.
One for the future. Probably won’t be able to break into the current lineup, barring injuries. Has made runs for the England Lions though and certainly deserving of full England caps at some stage.
Another of England’s backup seamers to be used as cover for injuries or part of a rotation policy.
Has struggled for form / consistency since making a good initial impression on his return to the team part-way through the 2015 Ashes.
Hampshire’s young leg-spinner may sound like a forgotten nephew from a former US sitcom…but he’s quietly enhancing his reputation and made a particularly good impression playing for New South Wales in the Sheffield Shield recently. The pressure on English leg-spinners can be crippling but he’s certain to win international recognition at some stage.