Ed Smith’s Signature Selections, ranked: Who popped & who flopped?
@Ben_Wisden 7 minute read
Few national selectors have divided opinion quite like Ed Smith.
His supporters can point to England having won five and lost just two Test series during his tenure, including two overseas triumphs and a 4-1 victory over No.1-ranked India at home. His detractors might raise the 2019 Ashes, England’s first failure to beat Australia at home since 2001, and point out that England are still a distance from looking like competing with the very best in the world in all climes.
Central to any discussion is a group of players who can be termed as ‘Ed Smith’s Signature Selections’, a label which makes them sound more like an array of jazz standards than a set of Test cricketers. Just like US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s analysis of hard-core pornography, it’s hard to come up with an exact set of criteria to demarcate the Signature Selections, but generally, you know it when you see it.
Generally, they are selected more on promise than on prolificacy and are stuck by for a longer time than others might get. Below are eight who fit within the definition, and a consideration of whether they can be rated successes, failures, or somewhere in between.
Top of the charts
If you were being extremely uncharitable, you might point out that Zak Crawley does only have one Test century to his name. But that knock, a 267 in the last Test of the summer against Pakistan, was about as convincing as it’s possible for a single innings to be. The Kent batsman probably stands as Smith’s most sizeable punt too, in terms of pure averages. Before his spectacular finish to the summer, his first-class average was in danger of falling below 30. Already Crawley has justified the faith shown in him.
Just because Sam Curran is yet to nail down a first-choice spot in the XI doesn’t mean the decision to select him hasn’t been close to an unqualified success. Picked to face Pakistan in 2018 after a Ben Stokes injury, he initially looked little more than bits ’n’ pieces, seemingly lacking the pace to trouble Test batsmen, and without a first-class century to his name.
But against India, he exploded into action, with a slew of game-changing bursts with bat and ball helping England to a 4-1 series win, and earning him the Player of the Series award and plaudits from Virat Kohli. While he hasn’t quite burned as bright since, with his form with the bat tailing off significantly, he has the happy knacks of picking up wickets wherever he plays, and of winning Test matches; he has won 13 and lost just four of his 19 Tests so far.
Middle of the road
Initially picked as much for his part-time leg-spin as his batting prowess, Joe Denly’s Test career should ultimately be remembered as a partly successful one, in which he rarely let England down while also hardly flourishing, and played an important role as a stopgap No.3, giving them some much-needed solidity as they identified the next long-term first-drop candidate.
He reached double figures in a quietly staggering 24 out of his 28 Test innings, but only carried on to a half-century six times. For a moment, however, at the end of the 2019 summer, when two half-centuries at Headingley and The Oval had played a significant part in rescuing a drawn Ashes series for England, he hinted at being something more than a fill-in.
Called up to face Pakistan on the back of some stunning IPL assaults, Jos Buttler initially filled a ‘luxury player’ role at No.7 to great success; in the year following his recall, no Englishman scored more Test runs, and though he only made one century in that time, there were vital fifties in series-sealing wins against India and Sri Lanka.
Since then, up until the start of the 2020 summer, he struggled hugely, averaging just 21.31 across 10 Tests. His batting form has improved significantly this season, culminating in a career-best 152 in the final Test of the summer, but some slip-ups with the gloves mean not all the questions surrounding his Test credentials have been answered.
Acolytes of Surrey stumper Ben Foakes, undoubtedly superior to Buttler with the gloves, will point to the white-ball superstar’s first-class average of 33 and Test average of 34 and wonder if that might just be his level, nodding to Foakes’ superior numbers in both categories.
After signing a white ball-only contract with Yorkshire at the start of 2018, most assumed Adil Rashid’s Test career was over. Then, with Dom Bess struggling against Pakistan, Jack Leach short of overs after injury and Moeen Ali still finding his way back after a horror tour Down Under, Rashid’s ODI exploits, especially that ball to Virat Kohli, were enough to earn him a Test recall.
🎂 Happy birthday Adil Rashid! 🎉🎁 pic.twitter.com/McLCduiruN
— England Cricket (@englandcricket) February 17, 2019
His stint in the Test side was a curious one. Sometimes he was hardly needed; in his second Test back, at Lord’s, he neither batted nor bowled. But he was also able to conjure moments of magic, notably to dismiss KL Rahul on the final day of the series with one of the balls of the century, and chipped in with 12 wickets during England’s whitewash of Sri Lanka.
👀 Adil Rashid turning himself into the Yorkshire Shane Warne here…
— ODDSbible (@ODDSbible) September 11, 2018
Even now the story rumbles on, and while Rashid might never be able to play the role of the containing spinner in a four-man attack, as one of many prongs, especially on flat pitches, his case is tempting.
Selected as a 20-year-old for the first Test of the 2018 summer, Dom Bess has certainly proved he has the attitude to take to Test cricket; what is less clear is if he has the aptitude.
His Test debut saw him plundered for 88 runs in 20.4 wicketless overs, but his second-innings half-century showed he wasn’t cowed by the occasion. More runs came in the second Test, along with his first three Test wickets, although two were caught in the outfield off attacking shots, and he made way for Rashid by the time India came calling.
When he earned a late call-up for England’s tour of South Africa as back-up for the ill Jack Leach, England felt they had a bowler transformed on their hands, work with a number of spin coaches seemingly paying dividends. He soon claimed a maiden Test five-for in just his fourth Test, albeit on a pitch on which Joe Root’s part-time offies plucked four victims in the second innings.
Back in England, the story has been much the same as it was first time round. Bess has continued to impress with bat and in the field, but is yet to convince as a Test bowler. A surprising, revealing stat was that he averaged the same in both disciplines this summer: 55.50. You’d struggle to find anyone who thinks he is the best first-class spinner available to England, with his status as second-choice at Somerset behind Jack Leach seeing him seek a fresh start elsewhere. A five-Test tour of India, on pitches that will force him to the forefront of England’s attack to try and prise out some of the world’s best players of spin, will either make or break him, you feel.
In the bargain bin
First off, let’s make clear that Ollie Pope has had, on the whole, a very promising start to his Test career. But you can hardly call the Surrey youngster’s recall for England’s Test series in New Zealand a signature selection, since he was the in-form county batsman at the time. His initial call-up, which came in Pope’s first full first-class season, had Ed Smith all over it, and it’s hard to find much success in it at all.
As much as his inexperience and elevation above the likes of Worcestershire’s Joe Clarke in the pecking order, what raised eyebrows was the decision to bat Pope at No.4, having never batted there in first-class cricket, and soon enough, in his first Test innings, he was facing up inside the first 10 overs against the best team in the world.
Three innings and a high score of 28 later, he was shuffled out of the side. Being generous, perhaps the experience is what spurred him onto his prolific 2019 heights while maybe taking some of the spotlight off his ‘second’ debut. Taken in isolation, it’s hard to see much going for the decision.
If you squint, you can still see the logic. After demolishing Australia in a semi-final romp for the ages, why couldn’t Jason Roy do the same thing against the same bowlers at the same venue a few weeks later? How much difference can the colour of the ball and the kit really make?
Quite a lot, it turns out, but then we knew that already. There is arguably no harder job in world cricket than opening the batting in Tests in England, and also nowhere where ODI totals have been higher. It’s a job for a specialist, and if there was one positive of a stint in which Roy averaged 8.85 as an opener, it is that, with Rory Burns and Dom Sibley earning call-ups and extended runs, that now seems to have been recognised.