England central contracts 2020/21: The winners and losers
@Ben_Wisden 5 minute read
Ben Gardner runs the rule over those who won big and those who missed out in the ECB’s list of England central contracts for 2020/21.
England’s young Test batsmen
This time last year, none of Dom Sibley, Zak Crawley or Ollie Pope were in England’s Test team. The first two were yet to make their debuts, while Pope had played two Tests in 2018 before dropping out of the frame. Now, all three have maiden Test hundreds and hefty red-ball central contracts to their names. Their inclusions aren’t unexpected, but do offer a reminder of how England’s batting order has begun to take shape in the last 12 months under Chris Silverwood’s reign.
Arguably the two players who can count themselves most lucky to be in the red-ball and white-ball central contract list are Sam Curran and Tom Curran respectively. Both are beguiling talents, with undoubted big-game temperaments and a growing list of match-turning hands with bat and ball. But neither would yet make it into England’s first-choice XI in any format, though each is pushing hard.
This time last year, Moeen Ali – England’s leading Test wicket-taker in the 12 months from his recall in late August onwards – had just been axed from the red-ball central contract list, with Jack Leach’s emergence, a shocker of a Test against Australia, and a loss of confidence going back further, to when he was dropped during England’s World Cup campaign, hurting his cause.
This year, he might have feared something similar in white-ball cricket. Though he was hearteningly made captain for the final T20I of the summer, with Jos Buttler and Eoin Morgan both out, by the second ODI against Australia he was dropped from the side altogether, with a lengthy stretch of poor ODI form coming to a head. But this time England have persisted with him. At his best, he’s a player that would improve any team, and it seems England will give him every chance to rediscover himself.
Having made his Test debut back in 2017, the idea that Craig Overton is still to be considered a ‘development player’ might raise an eyebrow or two. But though it feels like he’s been around forever, the burly all-rounder is still only 26, and close observers note that he does still seem to be getting better, having added that fabled ‘extra yard’ in 2020. Certainly his Bob Willis Trophy numbers – 30 wickets at 13.43 – mark out a player just peaking.
Despite being one of the three recipients of the ECB’s new pace bowling development contracts at the start of 2020, the year followed a similar pattern for Olly Stone, with brief spurts of brilliance separated by longer stretches on the sidelines. He was limited to just one Bob Willis Trophy game, taking 4-39 before a side strain kept him out. He’s certainly quick, and has built up a promising body of work despite the injuries – 130 wickets at 24.28 and an eye-catching strike-rate of 43.8 balls per dismissal. He’ll now get another year at least under the close watch of the ECB to show he can stand up to the rigours of Test cricket.
He may only have been awarded an increment contract, but given Jack Leach has taken the sum total of six first-class wickets since the last set of deals were handed out, the Taunton fan-favourite might consider himself lucky. He might well note too that with no spinner in the red-ball central contract list, he might not be too far from becoming first-choice again, despite not having played a Test in 2020.
His history of injuries and England’s plethora of pace options has restricted Mark Wood to just four Tests since the start of 2019, but his work in those Tests – two five-fors, two Player of the Match awards, and too many deliveries above 90 mph to count – shows exactly why, if England are to make a dent in India and Australia’s near-impregnable home records, he will surely have a big role to play.
But the Durham speedster has received just a white-ball central contract this time round, suggesting England might well be looking to model their touring attack on the one which has had significant home success.
Despite coming close to a Test debut this summer, featuring in England’s overnight XII on a couple of occasions, Sussex’s Ollie Robinson has missed out on a contract altogether, with the aforementioned Overton – in a similar mould but seemingly further down the pecking order this summer – earning a development contract ahead of Robinson. Perhaps England feel that, plying his trade in county cricket, Robinson is developing just fine, whereas they want more of an influence over the likes of Olly Stone.
In a way, Jonny Bairstow’s axing from the red ball central contract list was the headline omission, though it was far from unexpected. With the emergence of a new set of young batsmen – not just those in the Test side but the likes of Dan Lawrence on the fringes – Jos Buttler showing signs of finally establishing himself as a Test batsman, and Bairstow’s ever-growing list of white-ball commitments, his time in the longest format, despite positive noises from the men who matter, might well be up.
Despite starting 2020 with a maiden Test five-for and having served as England’s first-choice spinner since, Dom Bess didn’t quite do enough to earn a central contract, having to settle for an increment deal instead. His symmetrical batting and bowling averages of 55 this summer tell the tale of a player attractive because of what he can contribute in his secondary suit but perhaps not yet assured enough in his main discipline. The upcoming tour of India looms as potentially making or breaking the Yorkshire-bound twirler.
Eight fifty-plus scores, a best of 103*, an average of 48.71 and a strike-rate of 146.66 might have been enough to earn Dawid Malan the top spot in the ICC’s T20I batting rankings, but he has still had to settle for an increment contract rather than a place on the white-ball central contract list. Despite those numbers, he still might not be in England’s first-choice T20 team when everyone’s available, and he’s way down the pecking order in ODIs. But it’s still a remarkable situation.
England’s other fringe white-ball players
While Malan might consider himself unfortunate to only be on the increment list, there are a whole host of players who might consider themselves to either be prospects or to have performed well in 2020 who have missed out altogether. Sam Billings was arguably England’s white-ball player of the summer, but couldn’t get a gig, while Tom Banton, one of the most exciting young batsmen in the world, also missed out. Matt Parkinson, Liam Dawson, and David Willey are three others who must have been close.