The squad announcement for England’s upcoming two-Test tour of Sri Lanka will see a number of questions answered about the team’s future plans.
Jonny Bairstow looks set to return to the Test squad for the first time in a year, whilst Adil Rashid and Moeen Ali could potentially earn recalls.
There are also question marks over the opening position, given that it is still unclear whether Rory Burns will elect to miss the tour to attend the birth of his first child.
And with Jofra Archer set to be given a rest, a vacancy could open up in the seam bowling department. That area could be a key consideration for England, given the confirmation of a four-Test series against India in February, with an Ashes series at the end of 2021 looming into view.
We’ve considered the state of play for England, and looked at the key questions that should be answered by Ed Smith’s squad announcement.
What plans do England have for Jonny Bairstow?
When Jonny Bairstow lost his Test central contract in September, his immediate future in the longest form of the game looked bleak.
Three months on, however, and Bairstow appears set to return to the Test squad, having pulled out of his Big Bash League contract with the Melbourne Stars.
The main question is: what plans do England have for him? Will he slot into the middle order alongside Joe Root, Ben Stokes and Jos Buttler, with doubts over the fitness of Ollie Pope? Could he open the batting, in a similar role to the one Jason Roy attempted to play in the last Ashes series? Or will he just be selected as a back-up option in case of further injury?
Given Bairstow’s pedigree at international level and the fact that he has had to renege on getting some valuable T20 playing time to join up with the Test side, the latter of those three options seems unlikely. The question surrounding opening is an outlandish one, but if Rory Burns decides against making the trip to Sri Lanka, there is a decision to be made on who replaces him.
England might opt to promote Zak Crawley to open, but will be tempted to allow him to continue batting at number three, given his exploits in that position over the summer. The Kent man recorded his highest first-class score of 267 in the third Test against Pakistan, which was also the second-highest maiden century achieved by an England batsman.
Does Adil Rashid have a Test match future?
One of the main talking points of recent months has been the potential return of Adil Rashid to the Test match arena.
Rashid played his last Test on the tour of West Indies in January 2019, but carried a shoulder injury throughout much of the year which hampered him during the World Cup.
There is no doubting what senior England management think about his qualities, with both head coach Chris Silverwood and chief selector Ed Smith having expressed their willingness to see Rashid back in Test match whites. He is arguably bowling as well as he ever has in white-ball cricket, showcasing a control and mastery of his craft which very few are able to achieve.
It is the shoulder, though, that could well have the final say, with the 32-year-old himself unsure about whether it can handle the unique pressures that red-ball cricket can bring.
If he is selected for the Sri Lanka, it would be a clear indication that both England and Rashid believe it can. If he isn’t, then a recall to face India, where he was the best of England’s bowlers in 2016, would seem distant.
Is Keaton Jennings still an option for Asian tours?
The recall of Keaton Jennings to the Test squad for the original Sri Lanka tour back in February was met with mixed reactions from the wider cricketing community.
But the decision had its merits – Jennings averages 44.44 in the sub-continent, with both of his Test hundreds having been scored in Asia as well. Whether he would have featured in any of the Tests is unknown, but his experience of conditions would at least enable him to challenge for an opening spot.
Jennings’s name has scarcely been mentioned in the build-up to the re-scheduled series, suggesting that his odds of being called up are slightly longer this time around. He struggled for runs in the Bob Willis Trophy this year for Lancashire, averaging 26 from his five matches, but did hit 81 in the final game against Derbyshire. He also notched a century in the T20 Blast against Durham.
What does Moeen Ali’s international future look like?
Another player who has been in the Test wilderness this year is Moeen Ali.
Moeen made himself unavailable for selection following the drawn Ashes series in the summer of 2019. He was dropped following the first Test at Edgbaston, where he was twice removed cheaply by Nathan Lyon and struggled to contain with the ball.
However, speaking to the Doosra podcast back in May, he explained that international cricket would “probably finish for me in two or three years”, and told of his determination to break back into the Test side. He was one of England’s best batsmen on their tour of India in 2016, notching two centuries. How good he is when in form is not in doubt.
Having not featured at all in South Africa, apart from two warm-up matches, his motivation to return might be as high as ever. The only frontline spinner to play a Test for England this summer was Dom Bess, so if Ed Smith goes down the route of picking three spinners, or even more, Moeen could be in the frame.
What will the makeup of England’s bowling attack look like?
One big question will be how England set up their bowling line-up, with pace bowling often a thankless task in the sub-continent.
James Anderson’s recent injury concerns could limit him to one Test out of the two, but given he said he felt like a “spare part” last time out, is there a need to take him at all? Stuart Broad could be in the same boat, with four gruelling Tests against India to come in the New Year. Jofra Archer is set to be rested for the series.
That would leave Sam Curran, who has opened the bowling on several occasions for England, to perhaps assume the same role again. The pace of Mark Wood and Olly Stone could take the pitch out of the equation, whilst Chris Woakes offers something with the bat. The uncapped Ollie Robinson, a regular presence in squads during the summer, will also be battling for game time.
How many of those feature depends on the spin options available to Joe Root’s side, and how many spinners England pick in the squad could give an insight into how they intend to balance their attack. On their last tour of Asia – also in Sri Lanka – they lined up with three. Moeen Ali, Adil Rashid and Jack Leach got the nod on that occasion, and dovetailed brilliantly, taking 48 wickets in the series between them. And with Moeen out of form and Rashid not a certainty, there could yet be space for a relative unknown – an Amar Virdi or a Matt Parkinson – to make the step up.