International cricket is all set to resume after a long gap of almost three months, but nothing seems to have changed for England and the options that the selectors have relied upon for the impending Test series against West Indies, which begins from July 8 onwards at the Ageas Bowl in Southampton. The hosts have retained all the 13 members that had featured in the tour of South Africa in December last year.
Among the notable retention made by the ECB in announcing their pace-heavy 13-man squad and nine reserves for the West Indies opener is Joe Denly. And there were two noteworthy ommissions as veteran cricketers Jonny Bairstow and Moeen Ali were both left out. Meanwhile, Joe Root will be missing the Test to attend the birth of his second child and all-rounder Ben Stokes will be leading the side.
England squad for the first Test: Ben Stokes (capt), James Anderson, Jofra Archer, Dominic Bess, Stuart Broad, Rory Burns, Jos Buttler, Zak Crawley, Joe Denly, Ollie Pope, Dom Sibley, Chris Woakes, Mark Wood
Reserves: James Bracey, Sam Curran, Ben Foakes, Dan Lawrence, Jack Leach, Saqib Mahmood, Craig Overton, Ollie Robinson, Olly Stone
What will be England's top-order lineup?
England have had a long struggle to narrow in on their fixed top-three in Test cricket. Since Alastair Cook's last Test in September 2018, England have featured six different opening pairs in 18 Tests and none of the pairs had a stretch of more than nine matches. Heading into the opener, or even the series for that matter, Rory Burns, who is although only 15 Tests old, seems to be the only certain option at England's disposal to open the innings. He looked confident and secure during the intra-squad game despite scores of 21 off 41 and 35 off 77. His main concern will however be against the short ball a weakness in his rather strong defense that Australia had exploited in the Ashes last summer.
Dom Sibley, Joe Denly, James Bracey, Dan Lawrence and Zak Crawley were picked up for the intra-squad game in a bid to fill the remaining three spots. Bracey and Lawrence proved impressive during the game with their half-centuries and were hence rewarded with the position of back-up batsmen, implying that one between Sibley and Crawley will be picked as Burns's opening partner and the other will play one down.
In six Tests so far, Sibley averages 40.22 with one century, an unbeaten 133 in Cape Town earlier in January and followed it up with two back-to-back tons for Lions in Australia. Crawley averages 27.33 in four Tests with one half-century. But scored 91 an 105 in the tour games in Sri Lanka before the series got cancelled. The 22-year-old also looked typically assertive during the intra-squad game with his scores of 77-ball 43 and 43-ball 34, compared to Sibley who seemed to struggle a little. Moreover, what adds to Crawley's advantage is his attacking percentage as an opener - 31 per cent - second highest in the last two County Championship, according to Cricviz.
Denly's retention for the Ageas Bowl opener might be frowned upon. In 14 Tests he has played in his career, the 34-year-old averages only 30 with no century. And he hasn't crossed the half-century mark in his last nine Tests. The obvious question hence is: Why can't England look for a younger prospect for the No.3 spot? Well, Denly's worth is more than the runs he scores. Denly faces an average of 75 balls in an innings and has crossed the 100-ball mark nine times in his career. The length of the stay of a top-order batsman, when the ball is new and conditions are more difficult, certainly helps stroke players in the middle order, when the ball turns rough and conditions considerably deteriorate. One of his most noteworthy shows was against Australia in Leeds last Ashes, the Test mostly remembered for Stokes's brilliance. Denly scored a 237-ball 50, an innings that lasted four hours, denting Aussie hopes and eventually raised England's possibility of a win.
Ollie Pope, who was the highest scorer in the intra-squad game, Stokes and Jos Buttler will complete the batting lineup. However, the order is subjected to change when Root will return for the second Test.
Jofra Archer vs Mark Wood
James Anderson and Stuart Broad will be the obvious first-choice pacers despite the latter going wicketless in the warm-up game. Hence, one between Archer and Wood, both of whom were impressive in the match, will be picked as the third seamer. More so, England will adopt the rotation policy to fit in the two simultaneously given that they also have the few more contests coming up.
Bess, the leader of the spin pack?
Jack Leach was expected to be picked ahead of off-spinners Dominic Bess and Moeen Ali, given that the Windies lineup have only one left-hand batsman. However, England went ahead with the immense control that Bess offers. Besides his 3 for 72, the best among the spinners in the warm-up game with Leach and Moeen going wicketless in the first innings and conceding more than six an over in the second innings, Bess had an impressive outing in South Africa where he recorded an economy rate of 1.82 the lowest by an England spinner in a series (more than 500 deliveries) since Robert Croft in 1997 against New Zealand. According to Cricviz, South Africa attacked only 14 per cent of his deliveries which is the lowest ever for an England spinner. Moreover, he will also come in handy with the bat.
England's likely playing XI for Ageas Bowl opener: 1.Burns 2.Crawley 3.Sibley 4.Denly 5.Pope 6.Buttler 7.Stokes 8.Bess 9.Archer 10.Anderson 11.Broad