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England v New Zealand

Five ways England could rebalance the Test XI in Ben Stokes’ absence

Yas Rana by Yas Rana
@Yas_Wisden 3 minute read

While there remains uncertainty over the availability of the majority of England’s IPL stars for the first Test of the summer against New Zealand, England will definitely be without the services of Ben Stokes whose finger injury brought about a premature end to his IPL.

Before the current COVID-19 crisis in India precipitated the tournament’s postponement, it was presumed that England would be without their IPL players for the two-Test series against the side that topped the ICC Test rankings as recently as this year.

Ashley Giles, the managing director of England men’s cricket, yesterday suggested that England will be in no hurry to rush their IPL players back to action and that they may use the New Zealand series as an opportunity to blood some “new faces” into the Test set-up. “We need to look after them, with the amount of cricket they’ve got coming up, we’re not going to rush or force them back into cricket,” he said yesterday.

With all that in mind, here’s a look at five ways in which England can seek to fill that Stokes-shaped hole in their side for the first two Tests of the summer:

The 2020 method

England have had to deal with Stokes’ absence before, and not all that long ago. In the summer of 2020, when Stokes flew to New Zealand for personal reasons, they opted to include Sam Curran and Chris Woakes for the second Test against Pakistan, and they could go that way again. However, Curran’s recent returns with the bat – he hasn’t registered a Test half-century since 2018 – might count against his possible elevation to No. 7 while Giles recently stated that Woakes is a bowler who “likes to get more overs under his belt with the red ball before he’s up to speed.” With Woakes likely to play just one County Championship game before the first New Zealand Test, that might count against him.

Still though, Woakes or Curran at seven is the most likely way England will go, if both choose to be available.

Picking a county all-rounder

If England think that a proper all-rounder is the best way to balance their side without Stokes but Woakes and Curran are themselves unavailable, then England will need to look to the shires for their Stokes replacement.

There are a number of options. While he might not strike you as an international bowler at first glance, Ryan Higgins has built up a formidable record in domestic cricket. Craig Overton may well break into the set-up on account of his bowling alone but his batting returns are as consistent as they’ve ever been. Matt Critchley and Liam Dawson would be all-rounders who would offer Root a spin-bowling option. Tom Abell is enjoying an excellent season with the bat and is an ever-improving operator with the ball; there are options out there.

Bring back Moeen

If available, England could do a lot worse. England’s leading wicket-taker and run-scorer in his most recent Test appearance, Moeen would balance the side in Stokes’ absence, even if it would mean leaving out Leach who bowled so well in Asia this winter.

He would also come in on good form, too. His presence in the CSK line-up was a major factor behind the franchise’s resurgence in 2021. Picking a player for Test cricket based on IPL form would be a divisive move, but it’s been done before with reasonable success. But Moeen may choose to indulge in a well-deserved rest, and is valuable to England in white-ball cricket too, which could take precedence.

The Strauss method

England’s all-rounder stocks in Test cricket have arguably never been as strong as they have been over the past five or so years. Stokes aside, Curran, Woakes and Moeen have proven themselves to be regular match-winners whose multifaceted skillsets offer captains a number of different ways of balancing an XI, almost always with at least five frontline bowling options.

It wasn’t that long ago that England regularly fielded teams with just four frontline seamers. The team that Andrew Strauss captained to the top of the world rankings generally picked three specialist quicks and Graeme Swann as the sole spinner, with no one in the top seven considered a frontline bowling option.

It’s not something Root’s England have often, if ever, done, but they could theoretically pick a top six of specialist batsmen, a wicketkeeper at seven, three seamers and a spinner.

Four specialist bowlers, all seamers (+ Root, Lawrence)

The more likely of the two ‘four specialist bowlers’ options. Similar to the above, but with the addition of a fourth quick at the expense of Leach in the knowledge that Joe Root and Dan Lawrence can provide serviceable spin if required.

However, the hearteningly positive returns of a number of spinners so far in this year’s County Championship may put paid to that idea.

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