England still do not know their best Test team, according to national selector James Whitaker.
Whittaker’s strongest hint was that Matt Prior may not retain his spot as first choice wicket-keeper, with Jonny Bairstow running him the closest. The question remains, however, whether they can rely on Yorkshire’s Bairstow for runs with the bat, an area has sometimes struggled with at international level in the past. Nonetheless, former coach Andy Flower appeared to lose faith in Prior part way through the winter Ashes, switching to Bairstow for the final Tests.
That may have been something of an experiment, though, once the series was already sealed in Australia’s favour. Bairstow could do nothing to stop the inevitable whitewash that followed, but his consistency for Yorkshire over the last few years has held him in good stead to replace Prior once the 32-year-old eventually hangs up his gloves.
Lancashire’s Jos Buttler has also placed himself in contention, even though he has often been confined to the England ODI squad. He scored 59 for his county against Middlesex earlier this week before being caught by Chris Rogers. Such a wicket-keeping headache could potentially have swung the summer in Prior’s favour, but he is hindered nonetheless by the fact that he has not kept wicket for Sussex this season due to his recurrent Achilles injury.
Head coach Peter Moores is also faced with the issue of Ben Stokes’ injury, and whether he will recover in time for the first Test against Sri Lanka at Lord’s on June 12. Stokes broke his hand after punching a locker during England’s game against West Indies, but is expected to return to the side having made a promising start to life with England.
More worrying is that captain Alistair Cook’s opening partner is yet to even be decided, a sign that England’s notorious batting collapses might not yet be a thing of the past. Ian Bell’s strong start to the county season with Warwickshire and an impressive innings in the recent rain-affected ODI against Scotland will hopefully put an end to the matter, particularly as the general consensus seems to be that the youthful Joe Root should move further down the order to reach his potential.
Meanwhile, England’s middle order has effectively been left in tatters by a stormy winter. Moores must contend with the fact that South-African born batsman Jonathan Trott may never play for the national side again after taking an indefinite break from cricket with anxiety difficulties. Despite being England’s highest scorer in the Ashes, Kevin Pietersen has now been exiled from the squad; the ECB may only realise now the implications of that decision. Gary Ballance’s form for Yorkshire should earn him a place, considering he has never been given a proper chance at international level before.
Moeen Ali may prove to be the long-term answer to spinner Graeme Swann’s retirement, but elsewhere in their bowling attack, Whittaker has been guarded about whether Steven Finn will be rushed back into the fold after suffering a loss of confidence in Australia. He has been in excellent form for Middlesex, though, suggesting his leash of life is back.
The speed of England’s demise remains remarkable. This time last year, Flower’s side were preparing for an Ashes series that they would win 3-0, with the only lamentation that Australia were able to draw two Tests. The series against Sri Lanka will be the greatest indication yet as to whether Moores’ second stint will herald progress, or whether it will add to the disappointments of the last six months.
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