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Home Comforts

by Justin Rourke

The 2024 English Cricket season is here, hard to believe as the rain lashes down, but it is. There is a degree of optimism around the County Championship as a number of England Test players and hopefuls are set to play the early rounds.

The ‘break’ from test cricket will be good for an England team that have come a long way but have just lost momentum after a period of overwhelming joy. The 2023 Ashes were portrayed as ‘almost’ a heroic comeback, which masked over the shortcomings early in the summer. The India tour started with great success before gradually coming to a slightly sad end.

Balance is key. England drew the Ashes at home against an average Australia team (especially the batting). Think of how we fare in Australia and ask if we really think that was a good result?

The India trip was always going to be very tough. They are a good team. However, after going one nil up, India losing some experienced players and encountering pitches that were very fair we hoped for a much closer outcome.

On the upside, this team is much more watchable that many that came before them, and they still have a great deal of goodwill in the tank. The captain appears to have his knee sorted and has sacrificed both the IPL and T20 World thingy defence.

The bones of the team may not change that much. It seems the batting will hardly change at all with Harry Brook coming back in at no5. On balance I think this is fair and correct, but there are a couple of players under pressure.

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Ben Duckett and Ollie Pope both played exceptional innings in India, the type of innings that ‘impacts’ a match and this is why they will continue in the side. The challenge for them both is consistency. If you remove their big scores across the remaining 9  innings in India, Pope averaged 13 and Duckett 22. Stokes, Bairstow and Foakes all averaged 23 or less too.

Zak Crawley will be disappointed not to turn at least one of his four 50’s into a hundred, but he should not be too hard on himself as he was consistent and the only one to average over 40.

How good is England’s batting across the Stokes/McCullum era?

I have omitted the Ireland test from these stats, and the results are clear. Root and Brook are the best and nailed on at 4 and 5.

Stokes himself needs to score more runs. He sacrificed himself at times to set the tone and make a point. He is too good not to average 40+

Crawley, Pope and Ducket are in possession of 1 to 3 and all will get some more time as they have shown what they are capable of.

Dan Lawrence and Jamie Smith both now at Surrey are on the radar, but neither are top 3 batsmen so will need to await the unjumbling of the wicket-keeping debate or an injury/loss of form. Josh Bohannon and in particular Sam Hain look capable of batting at no3 but neither quite fit the ‘bazball stereotype’ which is not a criticism.

Various top order players have shown promise such as Tom Haines at Sussex and more recently Fin Bean at Yorkshire, but it feels a stretch to include them.

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The assumption is that a wicket keeper will bat at no7 and a number of cricket writers have suggested that the test team will move on from Bairstow and Foakes. The latter has recently indicated he thinks he is better higher up the order and will bat at no5 for Surrey again this year. Either Bairstow or Foakes could bat at no6 if Stokes decided to drop down to no7 to balance his workload.

The other names in the debate seem to be Ollie Robinson, Jamie Smith, James Rew and Phil Salt. Robinson is a very good wicket keeper, the best of this group after Foakes and his batting at Durham has gone up several gears in terms of both output (centuries) and strike rate. He is 25 years old and for me the natural balance needed. Jamie Smith has also kept for the Lions but is behind Foakes at Surrey and may need to follow Ollie Pope’s route to be a batsman. James Rew had a wonderful first season and is the regular keeper at Somerset. If he can maintain that level of performance he will come into the reckoning. Salt, I like as a player and he is a decent keeper. I do wonder if he is better suited to the top order batting position?

The spin bowling has also had a huge amount of attention and focus. I feel that Jack Leach is a Stokes man, but his unfortunate record of injury and illness are taking a toll.

The candidates (less the Ireland test) have all faired ok at face value and given the lack of experience and opposition you could say have done well.

None have a particularly impressive economy rate, but that would not interest me at all. My focus would be on the strike rate. Their job is to take wickets. Rehan and Shoaib lead the way here and I feel that this may be the time Stokes invests in one of them. Rehan brings added batting and an element of mystery with his wrist spin, he would be a dangerous option as the 5th bowler (behind 3 seamers + Stokes). Shoaib also offers a lot of promise and skill, his height and stock ball are a handful and England will feel he could succeed in Australia so will like the idea of giving him time to develop.

The seam bowling is also at an interesting fork in road. Anderson’s excellence appears endless but he did struggle a little last summer and there are whispers about how he will cope at the next Ashes. Yes, it’s a while away, but it also deprives others of vital experience before that time. A similar argument can be made about Chris Woakes. His record in England is exceptional and he was vital in the Ashes turn around last summer but he won’t go to Australia. Mark Wood is the third of the experienced bowlers that will play a role this summer. He had a tough time in India and will look forward to home conditions. Wood is not likely to play many games back to back, and therefore there will be an opportunity to alternate with a new/different quick option.

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Matthew Potts, Gus Atkinson and Josh Tongue will all hope to get some game time this summer. They are aged 25, 26 and 26 respectively, no longer youngsters but bowlers approaching their prime who need to be given exposure at test level.

It seems unlikely that we will see Archer, Stone, Mahmood play test cricket this year, but we may see John Turner make a case for selection. Another name who intrigues me is George Garton who is now at Warwickshire. George needs some luck with injury and illness but if a change of county can have a similar impact as it did to Ollie Robinson then who knows. Garton is just about to turn 27 and is a taller and much quicker version of Sam Curran. A fast left arm bowler, gun fielder and a no8 batsman would be useful in any test team.

I can’t wait to see how the start of the county season unfolds and who makes a push. It’s a huge second season for Fin Bean and James Rew and I expect John Turner to make an impact from the start – thats my three to watch with intrigue.

The test team might look quite familiar, but some of the seam bowlers (Potts, Tongue, Atkinson) will get an opportunity.

Crawley, Duckett, Pope, Root, Brook, Stokes, Robinson+, Woakes, Wood, Anderson, Bashir

If you like a more speculative approach, how about this:

Crawley, Salt, Hain, Root, Brook, Pope+, Stokes*, Rehan, Potts, Atkinson, Tongue.

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