The ICC Champions Trophy is just around the corner, and with it offers England another chance at winning a trophy to underline the improvements made by the one-day side. It will be a huge challenge, with the likes of South Africa, Australia and India bound to be there at the business end of the tournament, along with the added pressure of the competition being on home soil. It could well be a defining period for England’s ODI side.
So it would be easy to forget about Test cricket for a while, but the reality is that the next eight months in the longer format may well be just as, if not more, important to English cricket. A fascinating four-Test series against the dangerous South Africans commences on 6th July, followed by three Tests against an unpredictable and young West Indies side in August and September. And then we have the biggest task of all during the winter – an Ashes series ‘down under’.
Therefore, given the task ahead, it is imperative that Joe Root’s side find a settled and balanced team capable of beating all three opponents. In order to do so, selection must be spot on. England made some critical selection mistakes in India, both in the batting and bowling departments, and more of the same could prove fatal to their chances of improving as a Test side.
So with several remaining slots in England’s Test XI currently available, here are the leading contenders to fill those positions for the first Test against South Africa.
Opening Partner For Alastair Cook
It seems to be and endless merry-go-round, but England are still unsure as to who will partner Alastair Cook this summer. The answer finally seemed to have been found in young Haseeb Hameed, who showed superb skill and composure in his first three Tests in India, before having to sit out the rest of the series with a hand injury.
Hameed’s exceptional application was remarkable to watch from someone so young. His technique and shot selection looked in good order, with him also looking comfortable against the dangerous duo of Ravi Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja. He hit 219 runs from his six innings, averaging 43.80. All roads, therefore, pointed to Hameed booking his place at the top of the order for many years to come.
However, after an uncertain winter with the England Lions (33 runs from four innings at an average of 8.25 vs Sri Lanka ‘A’), along with an equally unimpressive start to the 2017 County season (106 runs from six innings at an average of 21.20), Hameed’s place could well be under threat if his form does not pick up soon.
When conversations do the rounds about the opening position in the Test side, Surrey’s Stoneman is often a man overlooked, yet it is hard to see why. Last season, in what proved to be a difficult year for Durham on several accounts, Stoneman was in fine form, hitting 1317 runs, averaging over 47 – a feat even more impressive considering the bowler-friendly conditions at Chester-Le-Street.
After making the switch down south to Surrey, Stoneman seems to have taken his game to another level. In just four matches so far this season, the left-hander has made 416 runs at an average of 69.33, with two hundreds already. And given the more benign batting conditions at the Kia Oval, you would be forgiven for book Stoneman in for plenty more runs in the coming months.
A stylish and attacking opening batsman, Stoneman could offer a nice contrast to the more stoic Cook at the top of the England order – a feature that would also fit the Trevor Bayliss mold of attacking play. And if the 29-year-old continues his excellent form, he could be a serious contender to open at Lords with the former England captain.
The Middlesex opener is a man with a point to prove. After fine form with the England Lions in the winter of 2013, Robson forced his way into the England Test side for the 2014 summer against Sri Lanka and India. He started well, hitting 127 against Sri Lanka at Headingley, though his form dipped considerably and faults in his technique were exposed by India’s pacemen.
Three years on and Robson has started superbly in his quest to regain his place in the England side. A notoriously good starter to county seasons, he has continued the trend this year, making 344 runs from six innings, including a fine recent 149 against Essex. His opening partnership with Nick Gubbins has proven to be prolific and is key to Middlesex’s chances of retaining their Division One crown.
What Robson does offer is the ability to play an array of strokes all around the wicket. Much like Stoneman, he likes to play positively and hit boundaries whenever possible, without taking unnecessary risks. He looks a better, more compact player technically than in 2014 and now could be his time to make the opening Test spot his own, should the opportunity arrive this summer.
With new Test skipper Joe Root expected to move back down to number four this summer, a spot at first drop will be available. Few would argue that the leading contender so far is Keaton Jennings. Amid the exodus of Mark Stoneman and Scott Borthwick from Durham at the end of last season, Jennings committing to the club was a massive boost following their relegation to Division Two as a result of their financial troubles.
And it is easy to see why Jennings’ commitment is so important. Last year, the opener was one of the outstanding county batsmen, finishing with the most runs (1,602), most centuries (7) and a superb average of 64. Such form earned him an England call-up for the last two Tests in India as a replacement for the injured Haseeb Hameed. Jennings made an immediate impression making a brilliant 112 on Test debut, under extreme pressure.
Jennings plays with a limited backlift but is very strong though the covers, emphasising a straight bat in most of his strokes off the front foot. It is thought that Jennings will make the move down to three for the Test matches, in order to accommodate an opening partner for Cook. And given his fine early season form (247 runs at an average of 123.50) for Durham, the South African-born left-hander looks good for a place in the Test side this summer.
Jennings looks likely for the number three berth but Tom Westley is a player that could seriously push him close. The 28-year-old had a superb 2016 season during Essex’s rise to promotion from Division Two, finishing as the second highest run-getter in the country (1,435), averaging over 57 with five hundreds.
Westley continued his excellent form in the winter for the England Lions, making 97 in the first unofficial Test against Sri Lanka, along with another half-century in the second match. He also hit 84 against Afghanistan in December at number three. The runs have slightly dried up at the start of this season, however, with Westley averaging only 35.71 from eight innings so far. Yet a stylish unbeaten 86 to clinch victory against Somerset, in partnership with team mate and long-term admirer Alastair Cook, showed his credentials once more.
Westley has made his name as a classy stroke maker, similar to the role Ian Bell played for years in an England shirt, and although it remains to be seen whether he can fully adapt to Division One cricket, Westley would be an ideal alternative to Jennings at number three in the summer.
With Jonny Bairstow and Moeen Ali likely to drop down the order once again this summer, England coach Trevor Bayliss will be looking for someone to slot into the number five position – and there are few better current candidates that Lancashire’s Liam Livingstone. After making his name as a powerful ball striker in the shorter formats, Livingstone earned a call-up to the England Lions’ winter tour of Sri Lanka, where he really made people stand up and take note of his abilities.
In the second unofficial Test on that tour, Livingstone hit a century in each innings, including 140 not out in the second innings when others struggled around him. His reputation significantly increased, the right-hander’s 2017 season with Lancashire has started well also. With the extra responsibility of batting in the top four, as well as the temporary captaincy, Livingstone responded with a superb 168 in Lancashire’s comeback victory over Somerset at Old Trafford.
Many are tipping the 23-year-old to earn a Test debut this summer in England’s middle order and his bullish style could compliment the likes of Joe Root and Ben Stokes well. Bayliss is known to have been impressed by Livingstone’s recent displays for both the Lions and his county and it is becoming more likely that we will see the talented Lancastrian, who also bowls useful leg-breaks, in the England side this summer.
The Kent captain is not often a man talked about much in the discussion for future England players, but his form over the past year points to the fact that he should be in the reckoning very soon. Last year, Northeast responded to the new role of captain of the side with 1,402 runs – the fourth most from any player across the two divisions – with five hundreds and an average of over 80.
Admittedly nearly all of his cricket has come in Division Two, yet Northeast has made a reputation as a versatile batsman, capable of digging in when required and being a destructive striker of the ball in the number four position for Kent. The latter facet of his game was in full flow during Kent’s recent win over Sussex at Hove as Northeast hit an unbeaten 173 from just 181 balls, with 20 fours and four sixes. It was a timely reminder of his undoubted talent.
Right now, Northeast is likely to be behind Livingstone in the pecking order but England could do worse than have a closer look at the right-hander in one-day cricket or for the Lions in the near future, before deciding to hand him a Test start. And should Northeast continue his form, he would be a hard man to ignore.
29-year-old Moeen has been England’s first choice spinner since his debut back in 2014 and has delivered some match-winning displays. Yet, the argument against him is that not enough of those performances have been delivered on a consistent basis. Not only was the off-spinner was outbowled by Adil Rashid in India, he took just 10 wickets from five matches on that tour, averaging a worrying 64.90.
Is Moeen’s place in the England side under threat? It is certainly a relevant question, yet in England he plays a slightly different role. Given the far more seamer-friendly conditions at home than in India, Moeen is expected to offer control from one end, therefore reducing the pressure on him to be the main source of wickets.
Moeen’s batting at number seven last summer against Pakistan was excellent and the counter-attacking style he offers down the order, as well as his Test experience, perhaps currently gives him the edge over other contenders. Though if England want a more threatening spinner, the selectors may look elsewhere.
The leg-spinner was excellent in India, taking 23 wickets from five matches and providing the threat and control that his talent has promised for years. It was a surprising performance, too, given that his form in Bangladesh showed worrying signs that it would be a winter that would offer more disappointment than excitement from Rashid.
The Yorkshire man has a wicket taking ability and, when his radar is on point, he offers a dangerous attacking threat for opposition batsmen. He has often been around the England set-up, yet has so far failed to play a Test at home due to the preference for Moeen’s all-round abilities. However, as a result of the pair’s contrasting performances in India, this summer could see Rashid replace Moeen, as long as the emphasis on having a more wicket-taking spinner is there.
Amid a plethora of questionable selections over the winter, the decision not to include Somerset left-arm spinner Leach was perhaps the most puzzling. Leach had a storming 2016 season, taking 67 Division One wickets as Somerset made a late season push for the title, only to be denied at the last hurdle by Middlesex.
On turning pitches at Taunton, Leach was a real threat, often proving to be the match-winner, as his five 5-wicket hauls – the joint-most in the country – prove. His ability to offer not only excellent control but sharp turn both away from left-handers and into right-handers caught the eye of many throughout the campaign.
So it was easy to understand the frustration from both Leach himself and all his new-found admirers that he was not picked on a tour where the pitches provided significant spin. Leach had a relatively quiet time with the Lions thereafter but any signs of the devastating form from last year could see him seriously considered by the time of the first Test.