At yesterday’s pre-match press conference, when announcing a fit-again Jonny Bairstow had been left out of the eleven to face Sri Lanka in the second test in Kandy, Joe Root declared that Bairstow “understands the situation and is aware that we have to pick the side that are best suited to conditions we can expect in Kandy.” This shows a significant shift in England’s selection policy, and how much different it is today to the start of the English summer.
There had been growing angst within England’s supporters because of a concern that certain players had begun to be seen as undroppable by the England management, Bairstow being one of them. The Yorkshire gloveman has been a curious case of frustration over the past eighteen months. At his best, he’s brilliant to watch. Fantastic stroke making down the order has saved England from top-order dispair more times than Jennings, Cook et al would like to remember.
Some fans have, however, become rather ambivalent to his repeated public displays of desire to keep hold of his wicket keeping duties, and his perceived reluctance to move up the order from number seven. Before the start of the English summer, Bairstow had become one of the first names on the team sheet. His average in the period between the South Africa series in the winter of 2015-16 until early 2018 hovered around the 50 mark, therefore making him indispensable to a team struggling for consistency. But, having been given more responsibility as a batsman during the India series this summer, Bairstow struggled up the order, as Ed Smith’s maverick pick Jos Buttler flourished further down. Suddenly Bairstow was under pressure, but England stuck with him keeping and batting at five.
What became clear however was Bairstow’s reluctance to have his position in the side changed against his will. And he wasn’t alone in this. Over the past couple of years, we have seen England players getting a little too comfortable in their positions. Moeen Ali’s ridiculous narrative about wanting to be England’s ‘second spinner’ when clearly he’s the leader of the slow-ball attack showed an enormous lack of confidence, but also a need to have his role on his own terms. We’ve also seen Joe Root’s reluctance to bat at number 3 when at times there has been no other option, and his team needed him to come in at first drop. Ben Stokes decided he didn’t want to field in the slips in the summer. As England’s best fielder he should field wherever his captain needs him, it shouldn’t be his choice. It all gave a perception that the players within the current England set up had become quite comfortable, and were beginning to pick and choose their roles within an international side which was underperforming.
These examples of players taking their place for granted could have been down to a lack of leadership within the England setup – either on or off the field, possibly even both. But whatever the reason, there seems to be a fresher feel to the England setup in Sri Lanka. A more professional outlook, with players seemingly more likely to do what is asked of them. This has been encapsulated by the selections they’ve made so far on tour.
Dropping a veteran of 123 test matches and 433 wickets should be a major headline coming into the series, but Stuart Broad’s absence in Galle was well received by England fans who have become desperate to see overseas success. PIcking 3 spinners should be a no-brainier on these pitches, but history shows England are reluctant to rest those that have brought them home success. Likewise, Jonny Bairstow’s unfortunate footballing injury would usually have seen England opt for an obvious next in line Keeper replacement in Buttler behind the stumps and a more experienced batsman brought in. To bring Ben Foakes in on debut at the potential long-term cost of Jonny Bairstow’s wicket keeping spot was a big call; the brilliant 107 Foakes scored in Galle was testament to the fact that England need to believe that when it comes to selection: fortune favours the brave.
England, now with a middle order of Stokes, Root, Buttler, Ali and Foakes (plus the excellent Sam Curran at number 8), look more solid as a batting unit than they have for some time. There may well be room for Bairstow to make a comeback, but it won’t be on his terms, and England suddenly have serious competition for places. There are still big question marks over Keaton Jennings, Stokes’ ability to bat three, Burns and Foakes are only new to the setup, and Moeen Ali continues to frustrate wherever he bats. But England’s one-day side have risen to the top of the world game through having an intensely competitive squad with 15 or so players all looking over their shoulders at those on the sidelines trying to get in, and you have to start somewhere.
England may have stumbled upon a new-look lineup that works. It’s taken years of disappointing results, especially away from home; but it certainly feels like they’ve turned a corner. They might go on to lose the series here in Sri Lanka of course, but they’ve so far looked like a professional outfit here. If England can continue to follow their brave, instinctive selection policies, they just might fulfil their potential.