Jos Buttler is set to keep his place in England’s Test team for the start of the series against West Indies.
While Buttler has endured a lean run of form with the bat in recent Tests – he has averaged 23.32 in 13 Tests since the start of 2019 and 17.55 in five Tests since the end of the final English season – he retains the faith of the team management and is poised to retain the gloves ahead of competition from Jonny Bairstow and Ben Foakes.
Underlining that faith, Buttler has been confirmed as one of the crucial team captains in England’s warm-up match, starting on Wednesday, and as England’s vice-captain in the first Test against West Indies next week. England’s steady Test vice-captain, Ben Stokes, has been promoted to the captaincy in the absence of Joe Root, on paternity leave, and Buttler is taking on Stokes’ preceding role. England hope to have Root back for the second one Test.
The three-day warm-up match will feature 27 players – there are 14 on Buttler’s side and 13 on Stokes’ – so will not have first-class status. The only three players from the 30-man training squad not taking part are Amar Virdi, Jamie Overton and Root. All three are understood to be fit, but Root is leaving the squad on Wednesday to attend the birth of his second child and the team management have determined that, to ensure that key players to gain the match practice required, there is not any room for the other two. The match will be live-streamed from static cameras at every end of the ground on the ECB’s website
Even though England’s head coach, Chris Silverwood, used to be giving little absent when he spoke to the media on Tuesday afternoon, he did confirm Buttler’s inclusion and hinted that, in general, those players “in possession” of places at the end of the South Africa tour might be in beneficial positions. With the Sri Lanka tour therefore postponed and the English domestic season curtailed because of the Covid-19 pandemic, not one of the players involved have played since the South Africa tour finished.
“I wouldn’t say selection is a blank page,” Silverwood said. “You realize the people who find themselves the mainstay, the engine room of the team. It is difficult to go too far absent straight absent from where we finished off.
Jos Buttler gives a thumbs up in England training ECB
“Jos will be vice-captain and he’s in possession [of the gloves] these days. No, you do not [have to be a genius] to work that out.”
That would appear to denote naughty news for Foakes and Bairstow. While it remains conceivable England could recall Bairstow as a specialist batting replacement for Root – he’s probably competing with Dan Lawrence and Joe Denly for the position – his preference for batting in the middle order may count against him.
Equally, it is conceivable England could play Buttler as a specialist batsman and recall Foakes. Certainly Buttler’s Test record as a specialist batsman – 35.68 in 20 Tests – is significantly better than his record as an all-rounder – he averages 27.43 in 21 Tests when he has kept – but all of the evidence suggests England are inclined to make few changes.
Whether possession actually is a key factor in this selection, it would seem to be good news for Denly and Dom Bess, too. But Denly could be squeezed by the return of Rory Burns at the top of the order, while Bess is fighting off competition from both Moeen Ali and Jack Leach as spinner. Moeen, with five Test centuries at the back of him, might have an particularly strong claim for a recall in a side missing Root.
The beneficiary of Root’s absence could polite be Lawrence. While Denly’s durability has been admirable, his failure to register a century in his 14 Tests and his age (he is 34) may both count against him. Lawrence impressed on the Lions tour to Australia – he made 190 in the warm-up match and 125 in the unofficial ‘Test’ – and, aged 22, is seen as a growing force. With one eye on a return to Australia in 18 months, this could be the time to elevate him. Zak Crawley, who gave the impression to grow in stature with every appearance in South Africa, looks set to keep the No. 3 spot at the back of Burns and Dom Sibley.
“Dan has settled in very polite,” Silverwood said. “He is a self-assured guy. He has come in, been himself and played polite. He is certainly one of them that has put his best foot forward.”
The other area England are facing competition for places is in their seam bowling. The enforced break has provided the bowlers an nearly unique possibility to rest and work on their strength and conditioning. The result is that, at this time, they’re all deemed fit.
“The only object the lockdown has done is delivered me a load of fit fast bowlers,” Silverwood said. “All of the guys coming back have had a good break. They’re refreshed and they are firing. They’re very, very motivated to crack on. The one object I have been impressed with is the shape that everyone has come back in.”
Crucially, the three quickest bowlers of those involved in this warm-up match – Mark Wood, Jofra Archer and Olly Stone – are all to be had, giving the selectors (and for this first Test, Stokes must be thought to be a selector) an intriguing dilemma. Wood, at his best, is tough to put out of your mind and claimed nine wickets in England’s most recent Test. But similar might be said approximately Archer, James Anderson and Stuart Broad. Hard choices loom.
Team Stokes: Dominic Sibley, Keaton Jennings, Zak Crawley, Jonathan Bairstow, Ben Stokes (c), Ben Foakes, Moeen Ali, Lewis Gregory, Craig Overton, Jack Leach, Olly Stone, James Anderson, Saqib Mahmood.
Team Buttler: Rory Burns, James Bracey, Joe Denly, Dan Lawrence, Ollie Pope, Jos Buttler (c), Sam Curran, Chris Woakes, Dominic Bess, Mark Wood, Jofra Archer, Stuart Broad, Matthew Parkinson, Ollie Robinson.