England supporters might have been given a little glimpse into the future with the naming of this “training group” ahead of the West Indies series.
While few of the new faces may make the Test team this July, they could well become more familiar in the months and years ahead. For as Ed Smith, the national selector, made clear, these players have been picked not just with a view to taking on West Indies, but to challenges in India and, in particular, Australia, too.
With no county cricket on which to judge players this season, the selectors have naturally relied heavily on performances on last winter’s tours. And that includes England Lions’ trip to Australia, on which they won the unofficial ‘Test’ against a strong Australia A side by nine wickets. Several of the eight uncapped players announced in this training group were involved in that squad and, as a consequence, have given their long-term prospects a huge boost. They could well feature when England return in about 18 months’ time.
So it is with a view to taking a closer look at them, and allowing them to get to know the big-name players who dominate in this Test side, that several of these young players are included. By doing so, the management hope the players will settle in their new environment and learn a little about the work ethic and attitudes that have made the likes of Ben Stokes such outstanding players.
Alongside Dom Sibley, Zak Crawley, Ollie Pope, Sam Curran and Dom Bess, who are all aged under 25 but have already taken the first steps in their Test career, England look to have identified the nucleus of a side that could serve them for much of the next decade.
But if many of the new faces have been picked with a view to the future, the exception may be Dan Lawrence. He scored a century in that unofficial Test as well as 190 in the warm-up match. Aged just 22, he would already appear to have come through a tricky phase of his career to emerge with technique and temperament improved by the experience. If Joe Root really does miss a Test on paternity leave, Lawrence would appear to be next in line and could feature this series.
“Many of those players were on the successful Lions trip,” Smith said. “Australia is where England go to next winter for the iconic Ashes series and it was really encouraging to see England not only win in Australia, which is always a good fact to observe, but also those performances from Craig Overton, Ollie Robinson, Dan Lawrence, James Bracey and others as well.
“It is a great opportunity for that group of players to join up with an England training group and to rub shoulders with the best players in the country and the established players in the Test team.
“In modern times England have tried to get emerging players around the environment so you don’t have a debutant meeting senior players for the first time on debut, as often used to be the case. Nothing could be better in terms of gaining familiarity and working out where you stand as a cricketer than being around the best.
“We are very pleased we have young players pushing hard in all positions. It is a great opportunity for them and it doesn’t come around very often.”
In truth, we have learned relatively little from the announcement of this ‘training group’. Perhaps we will learn more when England name their enlarged squad after their warm-up game in early July – even then, including reserves, there could be as many as 20 players included – but, for now, there remains scope for debate over who England’s first-choice keeper, spinner and No. 3 might be. The smart money would suggest the answers are, respectively, Jos Buttler, Jack Leach and Zak Crawley but the likes of Ben Foakes, Moeen Ali and Joe Denly will all have different ideas. There is scope for change, yet.
There may also be some tricky decisions to make over the identity of the first-choice seam attack. But with the Tests coming, once they start, thick and fast and several of these bowlers requiring gentle handling, the concept of ‘first-choice’ probably requires shelving. The outright fast bowlers – that’s Jofra Archer, Mark Wood and Olly Stone – look particularly well-suited to Australian surfaces, but it would be a brave captain who went into a game without a workhorse or two to complement them.
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That’s where the likes of Craig Overton come in. The England management hope that by giving him a central contract – well, the seamers’ version of one, anyway – and providing specific training and a slightly lighter county workload, they can help him add a few miles an hour and one or two skills to his game. They already know he has the character to thrive while other wilt. Now they feel he could be the man to contribute 25 tight overs a day, allowing his quicker colleagues to rotate, on the sort of baking Brisbane afternoon that has broken the spirit of generations of his predecessors.
Ahead of this pandemic, it was tempting to look at the schedule and wonder if the last Test of the summer might prove the farewell match of both Stuart Broad and James Anderson. It’s at Trent Bridge, after all, which has been a special ground for both of them. And with a Test series to follow in India, it would be understandable if they took the opportunity to call it a day.
Right now, though, both retain compelling cases for selection in English conditions, at least. There will be pressure on the team management to think of succession planning as the summer progresses, but both deserve better than walking off for the final time in a bio-secure venue with no crowd to applaud them. Besides, we’ve been talking this way for years. Both have bowled as well as ever in recent times.
There are some who have missed out. Dawid Malan has a calf injury and will not be fit for the series, while Sam Northeast, Tom Abell and Brydon Carse are omitted from that Lions side. With the exception of Carse, they now find themselves in the uncomfortable position held by Gary Ballance and James Vince of knowing there are younger men in possession of their places. It will be of some consolation to each of them to know that there are growing prospects of a return of first-class domestic cricket from August.
And that’s the bigger picture here. Whatever quibbles anyone may have with the names in this training squad, the good news is it marks another step towards the return of something approaching normality. That is to be celebrated.
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