@Ben_Wisden 4 minute read
While England already faced a tough selection decision for their upcoming Test series against New Zealand, the confirmation that Ben Stokes is certain to miss out through injury has brought the dilemma into sharp clarity.
The all-rounder, twice running named Wisden’s Leading Cricketer in the World, has long been England’s cheat code, solving all issues surrounding team balance by himself, as well as winning games from nowhere. When he has missed out, Chris Woakes, Sam Curran and Moeen Ali have all been able to step up to bulk the lower order to ensure the Durham star isn’t too missed.
With all three at the IPL, and India’s Covid-19 wave meaning quarantine will be needed upon return, none of those three are viable options. England will either have to rely on three quicks, something they have been reluctant to do in recent times, leave out Jack Leach and rely on some part-time spin from Joe Root and Dan Lawrence, or pick a stop-gap all-rounder.
While most of the players below would ordinarily be some distance from the conversation, the situation suggests they could all come into consideration. While early season encounters are often against weaker teams, allowing for some amount of rest and experimentation, New Zealand are one of the best Test sides in the world. If a bit of old-school county seam is the best way to make in-roads into a formidable batting line-up, then that’s what England must do.
Stats in bold refer to all first-class cricket, and do not include the current round of County Championship games
2,715 runs at 21.54, 1 100, HS: 138; 331 wickets at 24.37, 9 5WIs, BBI: 6-21
The most likely beneficiary, Craig Overton has acquitted himself well at Test level before, and by all accounts has markedly improved as a cricketer in recent times, with an extra yard added and some work in the nets allowing him to average 31 with the bat and 13 with the ball in the 2020 Bob Willis Trophy. However, England may still consider his batting not quite good enough to slot in at No.7, especially in a side which could feature Ben Foakes at No.6, and a lengthy tail from No.8 onwards.
15,925 runs at 35.07, 35 100s, HS: 235; 552 wickets at 24.69, 29 5WIs, BBI: 8-75
A freak of a cricketer, the 44-year-old Darren Stevens has continued to defy the aging process at the start of the 2021 County Championship season. At the time of writing, he is averaging 107.50 with the bat and 25.50 with the ball. He normally comes up in conversations about the best players never to play international cricket, and in all likelihood that will continue. But if England do want someone to make the most of a green seamer while biffing a few from No.7, before quietly slipping out again once the big guns return, is there anyone better?
1,825 runs at 33.79, 5 100s, HS: 199; 140 wickets at 21.02, 5 5WIs, BBI: 7-42
If England do want to include a degree of future planning in their selections for New Zealand, 26-year-old Ryan Higgins could be the way to go. After leaving Middlesex in 2017, the Gloucestershire all-rounder has stepped up to a new level, peeling off four hundreds and averaging 60 with the bat in 2019, while also taking 50 wickets at 24. His batting stats haven’t been quite so spectacular since, but his bowling returns have remained solid; only Ollie Robinson has taken more County Championship wickets so far this season.
2,298 runs at 27.68, 1 100, HS: 128; 213 wickets at 26.43, 5 5WIs, BBI: 6-37
In a similar mould to Higgins though with slightly less record to speak of, Ed Barnard has the benefit of having been capped by England at under-19 level. Having made his maiden first-class hundred this season, he could be timing his run just right to make a claim for higher honours.
2,662 runs at 21.81, 2 100s, HS: 137; 290 wickets at 25.23, 15 5WIs, BBI: 6-32
Lewis Gregory came close to making his Test debut in 2019, when he was included in the squad for England’s one-off encounter against Ireland, and has remained in contention in white-ball cricket. While his batting stats don’t suggest a Test all-rounder in waiting, those are diminished by having to ply his trade on tricky home decks at Taunton, and his formidable T20 finishing skills show that there could me more to come.
2,594 runs at 31.63, 4 100s, HS: 137*; 92 wickets at 41.77, 3 5WIs, BBI: 6-73
If England want to get even funkier, they could leave out Jack Leach and pick one of two spin-bowling all-rounders instead. Derbyshire’s Matt Critchley has been touted by Australia’s Stuart MacGill as a future England cricketer, and has started 2021 in the form of his life with the bat. He is currently third on the County Championship run charts, with 380 runs at an average of 76.
7,546 runs at 34.14, 10 100s, HS: 169; 207 wickets at 35.35, 3 5WIs, BBI: 7-51
At one point, and not all that long ago, Liam Dawson was technically England’s main spinner in Test cricket, with the management reasoning Moeen Ali as a secondary twirler would get the best out of him. Perennially a back-up but getting few first-team opportunities, now could be his time, especially with him having emphatically demonstrated no lingering effects from a gruesome achilles injury that kept him out of most of last year.