England’s two-Test tour of Sri Lanka is on.
With the entire travelling party testing negative for coronavirus, Joe Root’s side will fly to the subcontinent on Saturday evening and then prepare for the series which starts on January 14.
Root has fond memories of Sri Lanka, with his team sweeping to a 3-0 Test series win on the island in 2018, with their spinners as well as Ben Foakes and Jonny Bairstow among those to impress.
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So, as England get ready for this winter’s assignments in Galle, we look at some of the key selection dilemmas they face…
Who opens the batting with Dom Sibley?
That role was filled by Rory Burns last summer against West Indies and Pakistan but the Surrey man is missing this short series with his wife expecting their first child. There appears to be two candidates to replace Burns – Zak Crawley or the recalled Bairstow.
Crawley was first selected by England as a back-up opener for the tour of New Zealand in 2019 and, after making his debut in that series at No 6, settled in at the top of the order alongside Sibley in the series win over South Africa in early 2020 after Burns’ trip was cut short by an ankle injury sustained playing football.
Crawley was shifted down the order once Burns returned to fitness and scored a spellbinding 267 at No 3 in the third Test against Pakistan, with his innings the 10th-highest ever recorded by an England batsman in Test cricket. Having taken so long to find a No 3, England may be loath to move someone who is flourishing in that spot. However, in Sri Lankan conditions at least, there is another prime candidate to bat at first drop, in Bairstow.
Bairstow’s tour of Sri Lanka in 2018 did not start too well with an ankle injury sustained playing football – yep, that one again – forcing him to miss the first Test before he was left out of the second despite returning to fitness. Recalled for the third match as a specialist batsman at No 3, the Yorkshireman struck his sixth, and most recent, Test century.
Bairstow’s form tailed off in 2019 as he averaged only 18.55 in 10 Tests, which led to him losing his place in the side and then later his red-ball central contract but with his continued sparkling form in white-ball cricket, the absences of Burns, Ben Stokes (rested) and Ollie Pope (injured) and the belief of many, including Andrew Flintoff, that he remains one of England’s top red-ball batsmen, Bairstow is back.
The likely scenario seems that Crawley will open and Bairstow will slot in at No 3, although it could be the other way round. Bumble wouldn’t mind seeing Bairstow open, that’s for sure!
Dan Lawrence or Ben Foakes?
Uncapped Essex batsman Lawrence – described by England national selector Ed Smith as “inventive” and with “presence at the crease” – is an option for the No 3 spot but has spent most of his young career at county level and with England Lions deeper in the middle order, so will probably have earmarked a place at No 5 or 6, the spots left vacant by Stokes and Pope. However, England’s Player of the Series in the 3-0 sweep of Sri Lanka a little over two years ago will be thinking the same.
Wicketkeeper-batsman Foakes was awarded a Test debut in the first game of that series in Galle with Bairstow out injured and went on to score a ton in his maiden innings. Foakes also carded a half-century in game two in Kandy and ended the series with 277 runs at an average of 69.25.
When you add in his exemplary keeping – he is widely considered England’s best out-and-out gloveman at the moment – then Foakes makes a compelling case to return to the XI, something that would allow Jos Buttler to play as a specialist batsman, which he did with aplomb last time out in Sri Lanka when only Foakes managed more than his 250 runs.
Lawrence and Foakes – who boast similar first-class batting averages of 37.96 and 38.78 respectively – could both play and join Sibley, Crawley, Bairstow, Root and Buttler in the top seven, but that would leave the visitors with only four frontline bowlers when they really want five, with Root’s often undervalued off-spin as a sixth option.
It looks a shootout for one spot between Lawrence and Foakes, with Lawrence – who also offers some off-breaks – in pole position. Foakes’ chance should come against India later in the winter with Smith confirming there would be rotation throughout that series.
Which spinners and how many?
During the aforementioned 3-0 sweep in 2018, England’s spin trio of Moeen Ali (18 wickets), Jack Leach (18 wickets) and Adil Rashid (12 wickets) claimed 48 scalps between them in a series in which spin accounted for 100 of the 116 wickets taken. England can call upon two of those three this time, as while Rashid remains out of Test cricket as he focusses on the white-ball game, Moeen and Leach are in, albeit with little form behind them.
Moeen has not played a Test since the 2019 Ashes opener at Edgbaston and has spent recent months running drinks for England in South Africa and for Royal Challengers Bangalore in the IPL, while Leach last played a Test in New Zealand in November 2019 with a spate of illnesses keeping him on the sidelines just as he looked set for a sustained run as England’s premier spinner, handing Dom Bess another chance.
Leach was unable to dislodge Bess during the 2020 English summer but having stayed in the bubble as back-up, he also missed out on a chunk of county action with Somerset and played only three first-team games all season – an England warm-up and two for his club in the Bob Willis Trophy. It is fair to say Moeen and Leach are a little undercooked.
Bess has not cemented his spot, though, with his figures drifting since he picked up a five-wicket haul in the Port Elizabeth Test against South Africa in January last year, his second game after being recalled. Across six Tests against West Indies and Pakistan last summer, he claimed eight wickets at 55.50, albeit in conditions that were not hugely conducive to spin bowling.
England must not only decide on personnel but also how many frontline spinners they need. It was three last time out but maybe it will be two this time with Bess, Leach and Moeen not in spectacular form and Root able to offer a spin threat, as well as the fact that in Sri Lanka’s most recent home Test series, against New Zealand in August 2019, spin did not dominate seam quite as much.
Which pacemen play?
Should England go in with two spinners, it leaves three spots available for pace and six men vying for them – James Anderson, Stuart Broad, Mark Wood, Olly Stone, Sam Curran and Chris Woakes.
The fact Anderson and Broad have travelled to Sri Lanka suggests they will play but it may well be that one features in the first Test and the other in the second so they have a game each ahead of the four-match assignment in India from February 5.
Plus, with Jofra Archer rested for the Sri Lanka series, Wood looks poised to inject the pace, with Stone as back-up speedster.
That could then leave the final spot between all-rounders Sam Curran and Chris Woakes. Woakes bagged 17 wickets in five Tests last summer at an average of 20.47 and is arguably the better batsman, despite Curran playing a number of important cameos down the order.
But Curran adds the variety of being a left-armer and the footmarks he would generate around off stump could prove beneficial for Moeen, Bess or perhaps even both. Decisions, decisions.
Watch the first Test between Sri Lanka and England live on Sky Sports Cricket from 4am on Thursday, January 14
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