England will play England Lions next week in the first of two matches against each other ahead of the Ashes. Below are six questions the England camp will be looking to answer from those warm-up fixtures.
Three into two: Hameed, Crawley, Malan
Hameed and Malan are the current incumbents for England in two of the three spots at the top of the order. But, the return of Crawley to the squad and the long held belief that his technique will suit Australian conditions has muddied the waters in terms of what set-up England will go with. Crawley has had a torrid 2021 in Test cricket, averaging just 11.1 in the seven Test matches he has played. But his positive intent is held in his favour compared to Hameed who has a first-class strike rate in the 30s. Realistically, it feels unlikely that Malan will be dislodged from No.3 so this debate could end up being a straight shootout for the final opening slot between Hameed and Crawley.
Bairstow or Pope at No.5
It is easy to forget that despite Ollie Pope scoring 81 in the last Test match England played, his selection for that fixture was only due to Jos Buttler being unavailable in order to attend the birth of his child. Now, Buttler is back, meaning Jonny Bairstow is still technically the man in possession of the last-middle order spot. The question therefore, is whether that 80 from Pope was enough for him to have leapfrogged Bairstow in the pecking order? The two are likely to enter these warm-up matches on a fairly level playing field meaning a productive match for one or the other could see them advance their case for selection.
How fit is Stokes?
As fans we’d do well to not place the hopes and dreams of a nation on one man’s shoulders. But alas, that is exactly what we are doing with Stokes. As soon as his return was announced, the complexion of the series as a whole changed as England regained one of their truly world-class players. But how fit is he? How much of a bowling role will he be able to play and how is his finger that has been causing him so many issues holding up? All questions that will in at least part be answered in these two fixtures ahead.
Where does the return of Stokes leave Woakes?
If not for Stokes, Woakes would be booked in for all five Tests this winter as arguably England’s premier all-rounder who could bat as high as seven. Now, that role is filled and the great unappreciated talent of our time may well go unselected once more unless he is picked as one of England’s frontline seamers. Woakes has been on record saying he believes he has improved with the Kookaburra ball that is used overseas in recent years and a strong showing with the ball in these warm-up games could see him advance his case to be selected ahead of one of Ollie Robinson, Stuart Broad, James Anderson or Mark Wood.
Does Jack Leach play?
The handling of Jack Leach has regularly been called into question with Chris Silverwood appearing more than happy to not select a spinner in the starting XI. As a result, even though Leach is the only spinner in the squad, the question of whether he will play at the Gabba in the first Test is far from certain and much of that decision could come from his performances in the warm-up matches ahead of the series.
Lions bolters: Parkinson and Mahmood?
Not only will Leach’s performances be scrutinised in terms of his own selection credentials, but he will be competing against Matt Parkinson who (unless they decide to mix up the squads) will be bowling against the full England side by virtue of being a part of the Lions set-up. If Leach performs well, then he’ll have done it against what is effectively England’s B team which won’t carry quite the same weight. However, if Parkinson performs well he may well be doing so against the top-six that England will be backing as their first choice.
The same goes for Saqib Mahmood who is arguably the second fastest bowler England have in Australia behind Wood. A strong showing from Mahmood in the warm-ups could see him shoot up the pecking order and lay claim to an unlikely spot in the starting XI.