With the Champions Trophy and limited overs part of the South Africa Tour done and dusted, attention turns to the test series. South Africa are always a formidable challenge for England. In fact, England have not won a home test series against South Africa since 1998. To add even more weight to the occasion, it falls only 5 months before an Ashes tour. The management will therefore want to get the selection spot on in such an important year.
So, who could get the nod and who could miss out this summer?
Hameed has struggled considerably this year. After seemingly cementing his place with an impressively assured performance in India, he may well find himself out of the England test team. This would be harsh, but the reality is that he is not currently in the top 50 run scorers in the country. At 20 years of age, his next chance will soon be around the corner.
Keaton Jennings, who replaced the injured Hameed in Mumbai, started off the season in fine form. Worryingly, his own form has dipped considerably since then, which must be a concern for the selectors. To confound matters, England genuinely have several options for Cook’s opening partner. Both Sam Robson (534 runs at 76.28 runs per wicket) and Mark Stoneman (657 runs at 59.72) have been superb so far this year. However, Jennings has credit in the bank after scoring a wonderful hundred on debut last year. He did also score 57 and 71 for the England Lions against a decent South Africa A last week.
Who bats at number 3?
Assuming Jennings does open, there will now be an unfilled vacancy at number 3. Joe Root appears more comfortable at 4, and indeed averages 5 runs more than when he bats at 3. He will have quite enough on his plate as he finds his feet as the new test captain. There is a case to bring a new player into the team to bat at 3. Mark Stoneman would be the obvious choice if this were the case (who may open, with Jennings playing at 3).
But this is neglecting the most impressive English batsmen this year: Gary Ballance. The England management seem to like him. They picked him for the winter tours last year after some very scratchy championship form. It would therefore be odd not to pick him now that he is in sublime nick (815 runs at 101.87). His overall test record at number 3 is exceptional (1169 runs at 50.82). Some would argue that he hasn’t altered the technique that was slightly found out against the New Zealand and Australian quick bowlers in 2015. But he wouldn’t be the only player to resist changing an odd technique. I wonder how many tried to coach Shivnarine Chanderpaul to bat with a proper stance! Batsmen come in all shapes, sizes and stances. He should clear his mind and play his natural game.
The rest of the middle order essentially picks itself. Joe Root, Jonny Bairstow and Ben Stokes are an exciting sight for an English cricket fan.
Do we need Buttler at 7?
There seems to be little debate that Buttler will continue at number 7 as a specialist batsman. This seems strange. Jos Buttler is a thrilling batsman, and he performed well at 7 in India. But is Moeen Ali not good enough to bat at number 7? The stats would suggest he is more than capable. He averages a whopping 87.85 at number 7 and, crucially, has scored 3 of his 5 centuries there. In comparison, Buttler averages 32.52 with no centuries. With Ali’s ability to bowl more than useful off spin, this is surely a no brainer, isn’t it?
In the long term, I would like to see Woakes bat at 8 allowing the inclusion of one extra seamer in addition to Broad and Anderson. This would also enable England to include some variation in the quick bowling department, which can be a little uniform at times. The extra pace of Mark Wood or left arm of Mark Footitt immediately spring to mind.
Having Buttler bat at 7 feels unnecessarily cautious. If you have talented all rounders like Ali and Woakes, take advantage of it.
Seam bowling injuries a chance for the youngsters?
The injury concerns surrounding Woakes, Broad and Anderson are of course worrying. But this will give England an opportunity to experiment with other bowling options. Wood will certainly be the first in line now that he is fit and firing again. The aforementioned Mark Footitt has been in great form this year, having taken 23 wickets at 25.95 runs apiece. Toby Roland-Jones (22 wickets at 34.36), who has been knocking on the door for some time, has the important extra quality of being a competent batsman. Jake Ball, who performed pretty well for the ODI team in the Champions Trophy, has also bowled well of late (14 wickets at 24.07).
England also have reason to be optimistic about the seam bowlers of tomorrow. The youngsters Ben Coad (35 wickets at 17.54) and Jamie Porter (33 wickets at 22.81) have been in exceptional form this year, and might well find themselves in and around the England set up sooner rather than later. It’s also surely about time the Overton brothers were given a chance to show what they can do in an England shirt.
My Test team (depending on injuries to the seam bowlers):