England cricket’s ‘biggest ever year’ gets underway on Wednesday with the 1st Test in Barbados against the West Indies. Or the Windies. Or whatever they are being branded as this time round.
There is no doubting that 2019 will hold more important clashes for the England set-up given the small matter of the ODI World Cup and an Ashes series. But this final leg of a long winter tour, albeit with a big break in the middle for those not selling themselves as T20 specialists, will tell us a lot about the selectors’ thinking ahead of the summer.
The same question marks do seem to still be hanging over the England Test side, in all honesty. Who are the best openers? Will anyone truly nail down the number three slot? Is there a better way of deciding the strong middle-to-lower order than putting the names in a hat? How many spinners can we crowbar into the chosen XI?
In Barbados, it would be no surprise to see Keaton Jennings walk out to the crease with Rory Burns with Jonny Bairstow replacing one of them within the first hour or so. That is almost consistency in the current world the Test side live in and with Bairstow getting a ton in the last Test series he is going to have to bat terribly to score himself out of the Ashes series in that poisoned chalice of a number three slot.
As for the opening duo, all outcomes are still available to both. That said, if Jennings was the top scorer in the West Indies over the course of the three-match series I still wouldn’t be able to believe 100% in the possibility that he really is the real Ashes deal. A part of me continues to think that there should be a better option out there in England, South Africa or wherever else we are able to poach someone from.
With the keeping slot surely no longer up for grabs after Ben Foakes’ heroics in Sri Lanka, the real selection dilemma appears to be whether England select the future of Test cricket in Blighty in the shape of Sam Curran or go with leg spinner Adil Rashid. After all, Stuart Broad won’t take kindly to being left out for two series in a row, will he?
As my previous paragraph may allude to, I’d have Curran in the team at all costs and, potentially controversially, ahead of Ben Stokes if needs be. Stokes, for all he brings to the side in terms of fire in the belly, has not been that good since his all that court drama. Whereas Curran has been consistently match-winning. And every team needs a selection of match winners.
All in all, many of the England side go into this series with more to lose than gain. A horrid run of form could see them out of the side (unless you are, of course, Keaton Jennings who seems to keep his place in the side because of his good chat, positive attitude and willingness to go under the lid at short leg). But if you are Jonny Bairstow, Moeen Ali, Ben Stokes or even Stuart Broad an under-par run against the Windies could see them out of the Ashes reckoning.
The Caribbean hasn’t always been the happiest of tours for England so hopefully we’ll manage to navigate this one without too much Freddie-in-a-pedalo type drama.