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England v New Zealand

Five takeaways from the first England Test squad of the Ben Stokes era

Ben Gardner by Ben Gardner
@Ben_Wisden 4 minute read

England have named a 13-strong squad for the first two Tests against New Zealand.

With plenty of debate over the best make-up of the squad, England’s poor recent run of results, and the small group selected, there are plenty of players unlucky to miss out. And even among those selected, there is plenty to learn about the direction the Ben Stokes-Brendon McCullum era is set to take.

England Test squad to face New Zealand: Ben Stokes (c), James Anderson, Jonny Bairstow, Stuart Broad, Harry Brook, Zak Crawley, Ben Foakes, Jack Leach, Alex Lees, Craig Overton, Matty Potts, Ollie Pope, Joe Root.

England choose to stick rather than twist in their new era

Here it is then. The brave new world of English Test cricket under Ben Stokes and Brendon McCullum. And so far it looks… quite a lot like the old world. For the first Test against New Zealand, England could well field an XI with no debutants, as a makeshift selection panel have decided to stick with the likes of Zak Crawley, Ollie Pope and Craig Overton rather than look to the shires for a revamped squad. With a chief selector still not appointed, and McCullum preferring to find out what he has before tearing up the rulebook, this was perhaps to be expected, and it might be that when South Africa visit, the time for the new faces will come.

The players are the same, but the batting order is a punt

Still, even if the line-up might be familiar, the order in which the players come might raise some eyebrows. Speaking to the media, Rob Key confirmed that Ollie Pope was set to bat at No.3 with Jonny Bairstow at No.5. The latter averages 27.97 from 24 matches at third-drop, with no hundreds, while Pope has never batted at No.3 in his first-class career, a throwback to him being asked to bat at No.4 on Test debut, something he hadn’t done for Surrey up until that point. If it comes off, England will have a batting order to be feared and the punts will look like masterstrokes. If it doesn’t, then they will be back where they started.

Zak Crawley gets the benefit of the doubt

With Rob Key in charge, Zak Crawley was always likely to be in contention for the first Test squad of the summer. But it is worth noting quite how poor his start to the County Championship season has been. He has four single-figure scores in eight innings, a high score of 54, and an average of 19.50. And while he made a century three Tests ago, Crawley still averaged only a smidge over 30 in the West Indies Tests, with his overall average 28.60 after 21 Tests. Should Crawley score eight runs or fewer across both innings in Kent’s next game against Northants, he will go into the first Test of the summer with a first-class average below 30.

His attractive stroke-making and obvious potential has bought him another chance, with Key hoping McCullum can “unlock” him. “There’s some seriously talented cricketers in this country,” he said, when asked about Crawley. “We just need to unlock them and get them playing to the best of their ability. I’m hoping and betting on the fact that someone like Brendon McCullum and Ben Stokes and a clear vision for how we want to play is the way to do that.”

If Crawley can overturn the hefty mediocre sample size he has built up to be a successful Test cricketer, it will be a significant credit to him and to those who have backed him. But he might not get many more chances.

Potts is ahead of Brook in the debutant race

England have named two debutants in the 13 to face New Zealand, but as it stands, Durham’s Matty Potts is the only one realistically in with a chance of making his bow, given that England’s top seven looks nailed down. Key was effusive when discussing the speedster. “I like the look of this Matt Potts,” he said. “I think actually, they have all the data over the last few years, but that’s a reflection of history. But this year, I’m pretty excited by what he offers, so we see him as a point of difference.” And with Stuart Broad, James Anderson and Craig Overton all operating at a similar pace, it could be that Potts is the key to balancing England’s attack.

No.8 dilemma could aid Craig Overton

As ever, Craig Overton has piled up wickets at the start of the 2022 County Championship season, with 13 in his first game alone. His stop-start Test career so far has yielded 21 wickets in eight Tests at an average closer to 40 than 30, and although he averaged 21 in two Tests in the 2021 summer, his presence in England’s squad is still an uninspiring one to some fans. However, Overton’s batting may mean he has to play, with none of the other bowling options having any recent batting form to speak of. And given that the only two England players to pass 40 in their most recent Test were their Nos.10 and 11, they will need all the runs they can get, from anywhere.

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