Selector has not shied away from bold picks and may use West Indies Tests to experiment with the exciting over the pragmatic
Since Ed Smith became the chief selector it has been worth keeping an eye on the announcement of England squads. He has delivered a few surprises in his nine months in the job, during which he has never seemed intimidated by the enterprising selection that might attract some flak.
Smith’s best call for the Test team was probably his first – he has suggested as much – when he selected Jos Buttler, who had not expected the call because of the long-accepted drawback of him not having encountered a red ball for months. His most controversial was the recall of Adil Rashid, who was in retirement from red-ball cricket at the time. Both decisions provoked plenty of criticism, which has long since evaporated.
There have been several other occasions when Smith and his panel have taken the bold course rather than the safe one. Hence we have witnessed the England debuts of Dom Bess, Sam Curran and Ollie Pope, who share just 61 years between them. Then at the end of the season Smith followed a couple of hunches by picking Joe Denly and Olly Stone, neither of whom were obvious choices. Finally we witnessed the introduction of Ben Foakes into the Test team in Sri Lanka, which may not have been Smith-inspired given that the Surrey wicketkeeper was not in the original Test squad.
The bold choices do not always work magically: Bess, Pope, Denly and Stone are not currently in the Test team and still have plenty to prove. But the success rate is very satisfactory. We will discover on Monday whether Smith is emboldened to take any more punts even though there is little scope for change given the success of England’s tour to Sri Lanka. Few possibilities are open to him, though there is one that might not enhance Smith’s popularity in Kent.
Pope was deemed to be superfluous in Sri Lanka once Foakes had established himself in the side and Jonny Bairstow came to be regarded as a specialist batsman, so the young Surrey batsman is unlikely to make it to the Caribbean. Moreover, the selectors could opt to replace Denly with another of England’s white-ball stars, Jason Roy.
They are interested in Roy as a potential Test cricketer, which is why he played for the Lions against Pakistan A in Dubai at the end of November, when he scored 59 and 14. He would be an exciting rather than pragmatic option as a possible top-three batsman – though the expectation is that Rory Burns, Keaton Jennings and Bairstow will fill those slots in the first Test in Barbados.
Roy’s selection might be considered unfair on Denly, who only played in a couple of low-key red-ball practice matches on tour. However, fairness is not – and never should be – criterion number one in selection. They might consider that an experiment with Roy has more long-term potential than sticking loyally with Denly.
Meanwhile, do not expect any changes in the bowling department for the Caribbean. Likewise there will be little enthusiasm to disturb the make-up to the 50-over side with the World Cup around the corner, especially now that the current spare batsman, the formidable Alex Hales, remains available for selection.
If there is to be any tinkering in the white-ball sides it will take place in the Twenty20 squad, who contest three matches at the end of the tour. Some of the senior players will be ready for a break by then and there is scope for some experimentation. Here the Denly experiment might continue and players such as Lewis Gregory and Liam Livingstone might be two of the less familiar faces in that squad.