This Thursday at Lords, England remarkably have a deciding test match against the West Indies. Nothing other than a win will do for the hosts, who have named an unchanged 13-man squad for the final test of the summer. Losing a series at home to the team ranked eighth in the ICC World Rankings would not be ideal preparation for an Ashes series Down Under – the very fact that it’s gone to a decider has raised eyebrows around the world. Increased scrutiny is a by-product of an Ashes build-up, and with the Wisden Trophy in the balance, certain England players will be feeling the heat with a spot in the side to face Australia in Brisbane on 23rd November at stake.
As well as needing a win at Lords, England will be desperate to alleviate some of the growing concerns they have about a number of spots in their line-up. In doing so, they will hope they can get on with the job of deciding the make-up of their wider touring squad to Australia, rather than having to continually focus on the starting XI for each test.
Providing the Lords pitch does not deliver the turn we saw during the South Africa test in July – in which England’s spinners Ali and Dawson took fourteen wickets in the match (the most in a home test match since 1972) – England are likely to field the same starting eleven as the Headingley test. The temptation to give Mason Crane his debut has now evaporated given the context of this game becoming a series decider, and Chris Woakes will probably hold off competition from the unlucky Toby Roland-Jones in the hope he will be sharper than his lacklustre display last week after his return from injury.
Despite the farcical search for a partner to Alistair Cook at the top of the order looking to have finally ended after a competent 52 from Mark Stoneman in the second innings at Headingley, what if he bags a pair at Lords? My gut feeling is that because of the style with which he faced a rejuvenated West Indies seam attack he’s done enough to start at the Gabba no matter what, but it would be a significant step backwards should he fail twice at Lords. The fact that the back-up openers Keaton Jennings and Haseeb Hammed have enjoyed horror summers means that for now at least, Stoneman starts.
Tom Westley must be the man most relieved to be involved in the Lords test. Averaging 20 in his first seven test innings might not be the worst start to an international career, but the manner of his wickets at Headingley, not to mention the muddled thinking in running between the wickets, made him look worryingly out of his depth. England have, to their credit, always tried to give a fair crack of the whip to their new recruits in recent years, and four test matches may have been judged an insufficient sample size by the selectors. But Westley is not just approaching the last chance saloon he has taken up residence since the Headingley defeat, and is currently racking up a bar tab of epic proportions. If he fails to pass 50 in the third test he won’t be invited to Australia. Dropping Westley would potentially force Joe Root’s hand in placing himself at number three, so the absence of a capable alternative could work in the Essex man’s favour. However, with increased rumblings from the cricket press for the selectors to go back to the internationally-experienced Alex Hales, the in-form Liam Livingstone, or heaven forbid their beloved Gary Ballance, Westley must be well aware of the need for a big performance on Thursday.
One of the more surprising performances in Leeds was Dawid Malan’s 61 off 186 balls in just under 5 hours in the second innings whilst the lower order around him began to accelerate. Malan wasn’t brought in to play this type of innings; it was expected he could add impetus to an already powerful lower middle order. However, if he is able to replicate his Headingley knock to become a grafter who can hold things together lower down, this could be a hugely valuable role for him to play. Moving forward it’s possible he might have just carved out a very useful role for himself in the side – a real bonus for England.
Stoneman, Westley, Malan. Three major question marks in the England batting line-up. Two of which seem to be (almost) answered. If Westley can somehow find form at Lords and nail down his number three spot, England’s selectors will be able to spend the majority of their Ashes squad selection meeting discussing the two batting back-up slots, rather than who is going to come in at first drop.
If all three have shockers on Thursday however, England are in danger of travelling Down Under with less certainty over their line-up than four years ago. And we know how that panned out.