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England’s conundrum: Bairstow or Foakes? Extra batter or bowler?

Last updated on 21 Jan 2024 | 08:35 AM
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England’s conundrum: Bairstow or Foakes? Extra batter or bowler?

A look at the possible combinations the Ben Stokes-led side have up their sleeves for the upcoming Tests series vs India

Playing India in India is an uphill task for any side. Since the turn of the millennium, India have lost just two series at home – against Australia in 2004 and against England in 2012. England have not won a Test series in India for over a decade now.

However, under the Ben Stokes-Brendon McCullum era, the team have played an attacking brand of cricket, which has received mixed reviews from across the globe. But will it work in India, though? Does this England unit have the team and the right tactics to create history?

Two pacers or three?

England have a healthy headache ahead of the first Test in Hyderabad, and that is if they want to pick two pacers or three. They have four to pick from, including the uncapped Gus Atkinson, but James Anderson, Mark Wood, and Ollie Robinson will certainly be their three preferred choices.

In one of the scenarios, they may have gone in with just two fast bowlers had Stokes been able to fill in the role of the third seamer. With Rob Key confirming that Stokes will play as a specialist batter following his knee surgery, England may have to go in with an extra bowler.

Moreover, the England captain sent down just 38 overs in 2023 – the lowest for him in a year – further indicating that the team is not overly dependent on his bowling.

In that case, the visitors may have to accommodate an extra fast bowler or a spinner at the cost of a batter. There are high chances that it will be Brook to make way, despite averaging over 62 in the format.

Combination 1 – Two pacers: Zak Crawley, Ben Duckett, Ollie Pope, Joe Root, Harry Brook, Ben Stokes, Jonny Bairstow, Rehan Ahmed, Jack Leach, James Anderson/Ollie Robinson, Mark Wood

Combination 2 – Three pacers: Zak Crawley, Ben Duckett, Ollie Pope, Joe Root, Ben Stokes, Jonny Bairstow/Harry Brook, Rehan Ahmed, Jack Leach, James Anderson, Ollie Robinson, Mark Wood

In both the above combinations, Joe Root will act as the third spinner, and in case England decide to go in with the second combination, Ollie Pope, who has kept in three Tests before, will don the gloves.

Will Bashir or Hartley get a look in?

England’s director of cricket, Rob Key, had suggested that Liam Dawson was not keen on participating in the Test series unless he was a guaranteed starter. "He is probably not someone who wants to go around India as the 15th or 16th man,” Key had said.

With Jack Leach a certain starter, there certainly would not have been a place for Dawson, who is also a left-arm spinner. He had a brilliant season for Hampshire, picking up 49 wickets at 20 and with the bat, he slammed 840 runs at 40 – something that is certainly good enough for a place in the XI in most teams, but clearly not this England side, who believes in Leach’s abilities.

That has opened up the door for Lancashire spinner Tom Hartley. The left-arm spinner had his best season in the County Championship, picking up 19 wickets at 44.84 and also showing he is no mug with the bat, smashing 371 runs at 37.1, which includes two fifties, coming at No. 8.

On the other hand, Shoaib Bashir’s selection was a bit of a surprise. The talented 20-year-old off-spinner picked up just 10 wickets at 67 in his debut season with Somerset, but Key, in particular, was impressed with the way he bowled to Alastair Cook and nearly got him. Bashir is tall, gets the ball to dip, and has shown the ability to turn the ball as well – all qualities that could be handy in India.

However, there is a high chance that he is currently at the bottom of the pecking order among the four spinners. But if England does want to play three spinners and is looking for variety to go with the leg-spin of Rehan Ahmed and left-arm orthodox Leach, Bashir, with his off-spin, could be the solution. Will England throw the youngster in the deep end?

The wicketkeeper conundrum

England have three options: Ollie Pope, Jonny Bairstow and Ben Foakes.

Bairstow is the incumbent wicketkeeper for the side, but it surely would not be crazy to consider Foakes in the mix as well. Foakes was not considered for the Ashes, and there were calls for his inclusion when Bairstow showed some fragility in the first two Tests of the series.

Considered one of the best wicketkeepers in England, Foakes played three Tests in India in 2021, finishing with seven dismissals, including three stumpings. Unfortunately, he did not fare well with the bat scoring just 78 runs at 15.6.

However, he has shown his prowess with the bat in Sri Lanka and Pakistan, where he has slammed 341 runs at 68.2, which includes one ton and two fifties. There were no glaring issues with his keeping, too, inflicting almost two dismissals per innings.

England, however, cannot ignore Bairstow’s brutal batting abilities, which is in sync with the team’s new philosophy of aggressive cricket. Among batters who have scored at least 500 runs since 2022, Bairstow has struck at a strike-rate of 76.24.

Only four other players have scored at a faster pace. His consistency, too, has not dipped, having scored at an average of 57.62, slamming six tons and four fifties in this period.

While it is expected that Bairstow will start the series, he will certainly be kept on his toes with Foakes breathing down his neck.

As far as Pope is concerned, batting at three and keeping wickets may not work out, and it will be an option England will hope not to dig into.

Who is their backup opener?

In the last couple of years, Zak Crawley and Ben Duckett have more often than not given England brisk starts. Since 2022, they have scored at a run-rate of 5.41 and have had seven 50-plus stands in 21 innings. Overall, they have scored at a healthy average of 48.20, putting an end to England’s opening stand conundrums that have haunted them in the past.

However, England do not have a third opener in the 16-member squad. Given that this will be a long, gruelling Test series, the visitors have a back-up in the spin, fast bowling and the wicketkeeping departments but do not have one when it comes to their openers.

The option England have at their disposal is Keaton Jennings – not part of the squad – but scoring runs aplomb for the Lions who are currently on their tour of India. Jennings is no stranger to batting in the subcontinent, with all his 50-plus scores coming here. In fact, he slammed a ton on Test debut in Mumbai in 2016.

He had a productive County Championship 2023 as well, where he smashed 716 runs opening the innings. His average of 55.08 was the best among all the openers in the competition. He has ticked all the boxes and if England need a backup, it seems as though the 31-year-old could be at the right place, at the right time.

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