England may be forced to choose whether its all-format stars such as Ben Stokes and Jos Buttler feature for the Test or limited-overs teams this summer, after Ashley Giles, the managing director, conceded that two separate squads might be the best means of ensuring the players’ safety as they attempt a return to action during the Covid-19 outbreak.
Stokes produced two of the greatest England performances of all time in white- and red-ball cricket last summer, first for the ODI team with his unbeaten 84 in the World Cup final against New Zealand at Lord’s, and then, a month later, for the Test team against Australia, where his unbeaten 135 sealed a thrilling one-wicket win at Headingley.
But, with England confirming their plans for a staged return to training ahead of the anticipated start to their Test summer against West Indies in July, Giles admitted that the logistical challenge of squeezing the home international schedule into a 12-week window could force them to prioritise certain formats for certain players who might ordinarily feature in both squads.
The ECB confirmed that an initial pool of 30 players would be returning to individual training from Monday onwards, at seven different venues across the country, and under strict social-distancing, hygiene and temperature-control protocols. In an attempt to further limit interaction, players will be asked to arrive at venues in their training gear, with shared spaces such as dressing rooms to remain off-limits.
“We’re probably erring on that side of creating a bubble to surround our people,” Giles told Sky Sports. “We’ll probably look to take all 30 people back into the environment at the venue, so that we’ve got everything we need from a playing, a practice, and a net-bowling perspective leading into a Test match, probably two weeks before the first ball is bowled in that Test match.
“The likelihood is if we do that and we’re trying to main really safe environments, that we’re going to operate two separate squads.”
England have prioritised the staging of their six scheduled Tests against West Indies and Pakistan because they are the most lucrative formats when it comes to fulfilling their contractual obligations to Sky Sports. If no international cricket were possible this summer, the ECB estimate that they would be looking at a £380 million loss.
However, with the T20 World Cup scheduled to take place in Australia in October and November, the ECB recognise that their best white-ball players will need to get as much match practice as possible if they are to match their achievements in the 50-over format last season, and go one better than they did in 2016, when they were the losing finalists against West Indies in Kolkata.
Since the promotion of Chris Silverwood as England’s head coach, there has been a renewed focus on the standards of the Test team, which was largely overlooked under the previous regime of Trevor Bayliss, whose primary focus had been on that successful home World Cup campaign.
And after a tricky start in New Zealand, the team achieved a memorable series win in South Africa at the turn of the year, with a raft of young players such as Dom Sibley, Ollie Pope, Dom Bess and Zak Crawley taking their chances to cement their places in the Test set-up.
However, a decision may need to be taken about which of England’s multi-format players continue to feature for the Test team this summer, with six names up for particular debate: Stokes and Buttler, plus the two fastest bowlers in England’s ranks, Jofra Archer and Mark Wood, as well Joe Root, the Test captain, and Jonny Bairstow.
“At the moment we’ve got a schedule on paper that looks great, that we can fit everything into July, August, September, but it’s a squeeze and there’s a lot of cricket there,” said Giles. “”So again that probably leads us to a place where we’re operating two separate teams.
“It’s a lot of people, it’s a lot of logistical pressure and organisation,” he added. “Part of this is about high-level performance and getting sport back on that people want to enjoy, but there is also an economics angle to this, a financial element. For the whole game in this country, us playing cricket is really important.”
Where should England’s priorities lie?
England’s biggest box-office name produced one of the very greatest Test innings of all time at Headingley, and in a summer when finances count for so much, he will surely be required to front up for the Test team, over the one-day squad, and give the most lucrative format some bang for its buck. Whisper it, but his T20 record isn’t a patch on the other two formats. Verdict: Tests
Injured through over-use after making his Test debut in the Ashes, this lay-off has arguably been as opportune as such things can be, after the mania of his first six months as an England cricketer. His value as one of the pre-eminent T20 bowlers in the world is indisputable, and he’s already been the point of difference in one victorious white-ball campaign. Verdict: ODIs/T20s
He’s England’s Test captain, so that’s the end of the argument. Root was also their stand-out performer in the last T20 World Cup in 2016 – and would surely have been man of the final if they’d got over the line. But his importance in the other two formats has cramped his opportunities ever since. Verdict: Tests
Root in reverse. Buttler is already England’s greatest white-ball batsman of all time and their most feared campaigner going into the T20 World Cup. He is also Eoin Morgan’s heir apparent (and who knows how Morgan’s back, which gave him problems last year, will respond to this lengthy lay-off). The fact that his Test form was teetering in South Africa is further evidence of where his priorities need to be. Verdict: ODIs/T20s
Now here’s a dilemma. Wood, by his own admission, is probably going to break down within days of his return to action, such is his woeful injury record. But that’s never held him back from going full throttle, and nothing gave him more joy than his recent performances in Test cricket, in St Lucia last spring and Johannesburg in January, where he bowled like greased lightning. He’d be an asset to the T20 squad, but perhaps not a first choice. Better to let him go with his heart. Verdict: Tests
Another dilemma, though largely due to the knock-on effect of Buttler’s white-ball focus. Bairstow, his predecessor as Test gloveman, might be the logical choice to step into the breach. But should a man who caused such a storm alongside David Warner for Sunrisers last season be putting his best efforts into that T20 prep? His recent Test form has not been much to boast about, either. It might depend on whether England think Ben Foakes’ time has come. Verdict: ODIs/T20s