England v Sri Lanka: Alastair Cook quick to defend decision to leave popular pair out of side
Captain explains omission of success stories Stokes and Buttler for first Test
Alastair Cook, the England captain, has offered impassioned support for a team selection which has been widely derided. With England urgently attempting to promote the spirit of a new era with fresh values, the selectors chose to omit the country's two most exciting players for the first Test against Sri Lanka which starts here on Thursday.
Neither Jos Buttler, scorer of England's most recent one-day hundred, nor Ben Stokes, who compiled the team's only Test hundred of an agonising Ashes tour – Australians provided 10 – was considered to be ready. There are likely to be three new caps but if James Whitaker, the new national selector, and his panel thought that would be sufficient to placate critics, they were wrong.
Unless England play bright, successful cricket, it threatens to overshadow the presence in a Test match for the first time of Sam Robson, Moeen Ali and Chris Jordan. Cook, who had considerable influence at the selection meeting last week, could only put his side of the argument in the cramped film theatre at this ground where captains traditionally provide their opinions.
It was all he could do but it ignored the dramatic effect that Buttler and Stokes have had on a public which has seen England lose perpetually since last summer. Moeen will bat at six, Stokes' position in Australia, Matt Prior has been recalled to keep wicket after being dropped on that tour.
Cook was already fielding questions about the potential feisty nature of the series following the run-out of Buttler, while backing up in the final one-day international. Whatever the rights and wrongs of that issue, England have not made many friends lately at home or abroad.
But the country is ready for the resumption of Test cricket. The ground is sold out for the first three days. If there is much of the match left, the fourth will be too.
"Stokesy wasn't quite ready," said Cook. "He's only bowled 30-odd overs and when he bowled he would have been a bit rusty. He's gone for four and a half, almost five, runs an over, so when you're playing an all-seam attack you've got to be very confident about all the bowlers.
"We've got no doubt how good Ben Stokes will be for England but unfortunately with that injury he received he hasn't played much cricket and it's a big ask to come back quickly from something like that at this stage of his development as a player."
Stokes, infamously, was injured on the West Indies limited-overs tour in March when he broke his hand hitting a dressing-room locker to express his annoyance at his dismissal. There is no suggestion that his omission is punishment for such crassness, but in a brief Test career Stokes has already shown he has a taste for the big time.
When emergency measures meant he had to be called up to make his debut in the second Test at Adelaide last winter, he had only bowled 13 first-class overs on the tour, so it did not stop them then. In his second Test he made an imposing 120 and in his fourth at Sydney, England's most recent, he took 6 for 99 in Australia's first innings.
No one should suggest that Stokes is the finished article but his talent is obvious. Given his precocious start, the only way to ensure that he advances in Test cricket – with an Ashes series next summer – is to play it more.
Buttler has exercised observers still more. Prior has played 75 Tests and at his peak was a vintage performer. But when he started he was well short of the necessary class for an international keeper, had a dreadful 2013 and in Buttler there is the feeling that England have a genius on their hands. His 121 from 74 balls in the one-day international at Lord's 12 days ago took the breath away.
Cook said: "Jos is obviously a very exciting talent as anyone who saw that innings here knows. He's done it a few times now in his one-day career, and I've no doubt he's an exceptional talent who will play Test cricket for England.
"But we've got a guy in Matt Prior who averages over 40 in his Test career, he's an outstanding batsman who had a tough six months," he added. "I'm backing his ability at the moment and the quality we know he's got."
Lord's preview: First Test details
England A N Cook (capt), S D Robson, G S Ballance, I R Bell, J E Root, M M Ali, M J Prior (wkt), L E Plunkett, C J Jordan, S C J Broad, J M Anderson
Sri Lanka A D Mathews (capt), J K Silva, F D M Karunaratne, K C Sangakkara, D P M D Jayawardene, H D R L Thirimanne, H A P W Jayawardene (wkt), K M D N Kulasekara, K T G D Prasad, H M R K B Herath, R M S Eranga
Umpires P Reiffel (Aus) & B Bowden (NZ)
Pitch report Grass on it yesterday suggests it may offer movement but Lord's always offers surfaces that last, not swayed by the wishes of combatants. Any pace will make it difficult for the tourists.
Odds England 11/10. Draw 2/1. Sri Lanka 3/1
Television Sky Sports 2, 10am-7pm. (Highlights Channel 5, 7pm)
Weather Warm and sunny with late cloud possible. Maximum temperature: 25C
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