@Yas_Wisden 4 minute read
“Let’s work that out down the line.”
England head coach Brendon McCullum was in no hurry to speculate as to how England would go about fitting a returning Jonny Bairstow back into the XI, though he did confirm that the Yorkshireman would slot straight back in.
England find themselves with an enviable selection dilemma. Unless England go really funky, they will have to leave out one of the top seven who played in Karachi, or Bairstow. Of that eight, six of them have at least one hundred in their last three Test appearances and the other two are Ben Stokes and Joe Root. It is a headache light years away from where they found themselves 12 months ago where they were desperately scrambling to assemble a top seven with, Root aside, almost no one in any sort of form.
The quandary could be academic of course. Bairstow might not regain full fitness in time for the Ashes, someone else could fall to injury or completely lose form in the first six months of 2023. But the Ashes really isn’t that far away. England play just three Tests before the first ball at Edgbaston and the current England management are unlikely to be swayed too much by a brief loss of form in the County Championship, as evidenced by their loyalty to Zak Crawley leading into the 2022 Test summer.
So, how do England squeeze Bairstow back in the side?
Before the Karachi Test, the most obvious option would have been to drop Ben Foakes and hand Bairstow the gloves on his return. Foakes’ Test record is decent without being outstanding and there is a sense that the need for an outstanding gloveman is diminished somewhat in home conditions. Foakes was left out of the side when available in Multan as England included an additional bowling option but he provided a timely reminder of his qualities in Karachi on recall.
His wicketkeeping was close to flawless and his agility and presence of mind behind the stumps played a crucial role in the run out of a well-set Babar Azam in the first innings, just as Pakistan were poised to post an imposing first innings total. With the bat, his half-century helped take England from a precarious position staring at a sizeable first-innings deficit to a healthy lead. It is worth remembering that his best performance with the bat in an England shirt came at Old Trafford just three appearances ago. In partnership with Stokes, Foakes’ unbeaten hundred lifted England from 147-5 to a final total of 415-9 against a formidable South African pace attack.
There is the added complication that Bairstow will have just returned from a broken leg and there is no guarantee that his body will be in a position to handle the added burden of keeping wicket in a Test, something he has done just once since the 2019 Ashes. Even if there were assurances that he was able to withstand the physical challenge of keeping wicket, there will be a hesitation to tinker with the role that he flourished in so emphatically last summer as a specialist middle-order batter. Ollie Pope, who has now kept wicket for England in three Tests, is another option with the gloves but it is unlikely that England will want their No.3 to be their full-time wicketkeeper. England may also opt for flexibility, as they did at Multan, with Pope dropping down the order after a heavy keeping burden. Should Pope play a marathon knock early in the game, Bairstow could take the gloves, and after a long stint in the field, England could choose to shuffle the order.
Another option is to leave out one of the openers and promote a middle-order batter to the top. Zak Crawley had a relatively quiet tour of Pakistan after the series’ opening day where he was one of four England centurions and while there has been an improvement in his returns over the past six months, he is yet to really demonstrate his stickability when there has been significant lateral movement. That said, the England management have invested a lot of time into Crawley’s development and it would be a shame for him to lose his spot just as he looks closest to cracking Test cricket. Ben Duckett should be much harder to leave out. He was England’s second-leading run-scorer in Pakistan and boasts a far better domestic first-class record than his opening partner. Equally, should he struggle in New Zealand, it’s possible that England could choose to view him as a spin specialist.
It is also far from clear who would open should one of Crawley or Duckett miss out. Harry Brook has opened in first-class cricket before without a great deal of success and it has been close to a decade since Joe Root performed the role for England on a permanent basis; there will be an understandable reluctance to move either of them from the middle order. They could promote Bairstow to the top of the order but given his recent success lower down that would represent a major risk. It may well be that Stokes, who has long been touted as a credible option at No. 3, could be the man to undertake the responsibility if required. Pope has never opened in first-class cricket but under the current regime nothing is off the table.
Another of the ‘simpler’ solutions to the puzzle would be to promote Harry Brook to three and leave out Ollie Pope from the XI. This would involve less fiddling with the order but it would be extremely harsh on Pope who has had an excellent run at three since Stokes took over as captain. You could make a fair case that while he has only made two hundreds since the start of the 2022 summer, he has made significant contributions in seven of his last 10 Test appearances.
Quite simply, there is no easy answer. Unless they decide to significantly alter the balance of the side – dropping Leach or a seamer to accommodate an extra batter, for example – they will have to leave out someone who has either scored a hundred in one of their last three Tests or is called Joe Root or Ben Stokes. For a team who earlier in the year were on a run of one win in 17, it’s a good problem to have.