Don Topley: Assessing England’s side as Test Match season begins

Joe Root is set to bat at number 3 for England. Picture: PA SPORT

Joe Root is set to bat at number 3 for England. Picture: PA SPORT - Credit: PA WIRE

In his latest cricket column, Don Topley takes a look at the England side as Test Match season gets underway...

Ben Stokes is back in the England fold. Picture: PA SPORT

Ben Stokes is back in the England fold. Picture: PA SPORT - Credit: PA Wire/Press Association Images

Thursday is the start of the Test Match season with Pakistan the visitors for the First Test at Lord’s Cricket Ground.

Good support - including a ‘noisy crowd’ - are expected as Pakistan possess a colourful and passionate support from within the UK, together with many who will fly in to join the fervour.

Joe Root’s England side will want to put a disappointing winter of Test cricket behind them after being beaten 4-0 in Australia and then losing in New Zealand, 1-0.

I witnessed the Ashes down under, hosting many England supporters – courtesy of Smile Group Travel – as the Aussies dominated the series. Dawid Malan, Johnny Bairstow and James Anderson were the only ones to gain any credit down-under.

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The new Chairman of Selectors, Ed Smith, has boldly taken a different direction which has pleased some journalists and former cricketers but surprised cricket fans.

Firstly, and most significantly, Joe Root will move up to bat at No3 – allegedly Root initiated the idea for his team’s benefit. Many identified Bairstow – currently England’s best batsman over the last 12 months – moving up from 6 or 7 to No 5. Bairstow is extremely excited by this challenge too.

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James Vince’s stats are not strong enough to stay as part of the set up, but his plea is not dissimilar to that of Mike Gatting 30 years ago; Gatting struggled with Test Matches in his early years.

Recently, Vince recorded a brilliant double century and saved a county game for Hampshire but ‘Smith and Co’ selected the England side the day before that superb and stubborn effort.

Then come the surprises…. four players have been selected who have been away at the Indian Premier League for almost two months. Those four have not played any red ball cricket, but two of them have not played any cricket at all for ages!

Joss Buttler gives England an X-factor. Picture: PA SPORT

Joss Buttler gives England an X-factor. Picture: PA SPORT - Credit: PA

We all know Ben Stokes is a marvellous cricketer, but in comparison to last year’s IPL he has been underwhelming.

Chris Woakes and Mark Wood have only played six games combined out of 28 which has displeased their counties, especially Wood’s Durham.

But, on the positive side, both bowlers should not be injured, over bowled or even tired – but obviously will be devoid of some red ball bowling rhythm.

The main surprise was the return of Jos Buttler, who is a brilliant white ball cricketer and has enjoyed a successful IPL.

I cannot imagine he will take the gloves off Bairstow, but he gives England some X-factor in the lower order, possibly at No7.

There are some who suggest selecting these four IPL players demeans the status of our county cricket.

Dom Bess, the Somerset off-spinner, may make his surprise debut at Lord’s. The unfortunate leg-spinner, Mason Crane, endured a stress fracture of the back in Australia and his replacement, another Somerset spinner in Jack Leach, has subsequently broken his thumb. We all know in sport someone’s bad luck becomes someone else’s fortune!

Lord’s traditionally doesn’t offer turn – especially in May – so Bess is not guaranteed making the starting XI, as Captain Root can bowl some part time off-spin. They may play an extra seamer, but romantically, I do hope Bess gets the nod!

James Anderson and Stuart Broad will lead the attack and it is pleasing to see Broad back to his very best with his away swingers. In between winter tours, he received some one-to-one coaching back at his county. In Australia, Broad was poor and he knew it and did something credible about it. He reaped the rewards in New Zealand, where he was so impressive.

Alastair Cook will be key, as ever, for England this summer. Picture: PA SPORT

Alastair Cook will be key, as ever, for England this summer. Picture: PA SPORT - Credit: PA Wire/Press Association Images

Last but not least is Alastair Cook. I witnessed his historic 247 in Melbourne but his winter return of runs was poor. He will be desperate to continue being England’s rock at the top of the order.

I flew home from Australia and sat in the very next seat to Alastair, and we chatted about the game. He still has that desire but will have to importantly ‘fend off’ his former Essex team-mate and top Pakistan opening bowler, Mohammed Amir first.

Amir is currently one of the best left arm bowlers in world cricket (with Trent Boult) and Cook has a proven weakness against left arm bowlers who swing the ball away from the left hander - that in itself should be one of the many key battles in this absorbing two Test series.

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