ENG v WI selection roundup: don’t compromise a strength to cover a weakness

Can Stokes & crew get back into the groove after the COVID hiatus against the West Indies?

Both teams go into the first Test at Southampton with the majority of the XI inked in, and even though both very definitely have superior bowling attacks to batting lineups, as ever it’s the bowlers where ink is replaced by light pencil. At this stage, a couple of days out from the big bio-secure bang, here’s how the XIs and the options to complete them stand.

ENGLAND: Rory Burns, Dom Sibley, Joe Denly, Zak Crawley, Ben Stokes (c), Ollie Pope, Jos Buttler (wk), Dom Bess, ?, ?, James Anderson
Holes: Fast bowlers
Candidates: Stuart Broad, Jofra Archer, Mark Wood, Chris Woakes

It would be a big deal to leave out Stuart Broad for a home Test for the first time since both he and Anderson were rested from the dead-rubber Edgbaston Test against West Indies in 2012, and break a near-record 51 consecutive home Test run. It would also rob us of the intriguing prospect of Broad Jr being fined for over-appealing by his own father.

But he believes that with competition heavy and all candidates refreshed by several enforced months off, he is not safe. He is less penetrative at Southampton than at any other ground in England. And there must be a temptation to unleash a fully fit and firing Jofra Archer and Mark Wood upon a wobbly West Indies top order – both looked in superb rhythm for Team Buttler and hurried even the most illustrious of their teammates.

Then there’s Mr Dependable, the newly louche-lookingChris Woakes. He can bat, although his tendency to freeze against the short ball will not have gone unnoticed by the West Indies pace battery. He can move the ball off the seam and in the air at decent pace. He’ll most likely play at least one Test of this series, but his performance in the intra-squad game was not of the spectacular nature needed to make him un-leave-out-able for Southampton.

The ever-engaging Broad has told us that England’s plan is to pick their strongest attack for the first Test and think about rest and rotation from that base. That would seem to suggest that he and Archer will join Anderson, Stokes and Bess – but be only mildly surprised if Wood replaces one of them. It’s a nice problem to have, eh?

Nakul’s choice: Jofra Archer and Stuart Broad

WEST INDIES: Kraigg Brathwaite, John Campbell, Shamarh Brooks, Shai Hope, Roston Chase, Shane Dowrich (wk), Jason Holder (c), ?, Kemar Roach, ?, ?
Holes: 6th batter or 5th bowler; spinner or fourth fast bowler; fast bowlers

Candidates: Jermaine Blackwood, Shannon Gabriel, Alzarri Joseph, Rakheem Cornwall, Raymon Reifer

The man in possession from West Indies’ last Test, their impressive victory against Afghanistan in Lucknow, is Rakheem Cornwall (from that XI, Jomel Warrican is in the reserves, while Shimron Hetmyer is not touring due to particularly Guyanese concerns about COVID-19).

He has started his Test career well with 13 wickets in 3 innings at 22.61, generating the bounce one would expect of someone who’s 6′ 5″ and distinct drift, dip and turn to trouble both the Afghans and, a few months before, an otherwise dominant India in Jamaica. Throw in another excellent first-class season, skill and timing with the bat and a good pair of hands at slip, and he would certainly be unlucky to left out, especially at a Southampton ground that is more spin-friendly than any other ground in the country bar Cardiff.

But there’s a growing feeling that, with Shannon Gabriel fit enough after ankle surgery to be added to the Test squad and Alzarri Joseph in good nick, West Indies may try and replicate the four-fast-bowler formula that saw them overwhelm England in the Caribbean last year. And it isn’t a one-series wonder: since the start of 2018 West Indies fast bowlers are second only to India in terms of average and strike rate. Andy Roberts has even called for the uncapped Oshane Thomas (also in the reserves) to play purely on the basis of him being the fastest bowler in the Caribbean.

In the spirit of maximising one’s strengths, there is even a less-than-zero prospect of West Indies playing all four fast bowlers PLUS Cornwall and banking on the all-round ability of the Antiguan, Shane Dowrich and Jason Holder in the lower-middle order. West Indies’ keeper and captain didn’t get much time in the middle during the intra-squad games at Old Trafford, but since the start of 2018 Dowrich averages 40 (more than BJ Watling or Quinton de Kock) and Holder 42.50 (more than any England batter than Ollie Pope).

This would mean leaving out a middle-order batter, and that would almost certainly be Jermaine Blackwood. The free-wheeling Jamaican has forced his way back into Test reckoning after a creditable performance deputising as a concussion substitute for Darren Bravo (not touring due to family concerns about COVID) against India last year, and more pertinently an outstanding first-class season – 768 runs at 51.20 with a double hundred and 6 fifties is a good year in anyone’s book. He has scored runs in England and adds some of the aggression that West Indies lack with Hetmyer, and despite inconsistent performances in the intra-squad games his exclusion would be for team balance rather than anything he’s done wrong.

There is a late bolter in the form of Bajan left-arm seamer Raymon Reifer. He probably wouldn’t be touring if not for the absence Keemo Paul, who like Hetmyer is not touring due to the particular conditions in Guyana regarding COVID, but his somewhat intangible competitive qualities have been lauded by national selector Roger Harper; he can bat; and he is a more ‘English’-style bowler than anyone else the West Indies have on offer, bowling tight to the top of off-stump and maximising any movement on offer off the pitch or through the air.

Reifer could complement Holder, Roach and Gabriel/Joseph – this would ensure Blackwood’s place, as even the West Indies might think five seamers is overkill. However, with Southampton tending to be a batting-friendly pitch where seamers are merely effective rather than dominant (since it first hosted a Test, it’s the only ground in England with a mean batting average above 40), Reifer if selected could be exposed as a horse for the wrong course.

This writer would like West Indies to maximise their strengths rather than cover for their weaknesses – which are, to be reductive, bowling and top-order batting respectively. But whether a team with zero World Test Championship points and no recent away Test record to speak of will make such a bold call remains to be seen.

Nakul’s choice: Rakheem Cornwall, Alzarri Joseph and Shannon Gabriel