Sri Lanka series: England will play safe and hand debut to Sam Robson

Middlesex man likely to become Alastair Cook's eighth opening partner in Tests
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The Independent Online

Gosh, this is exciting. It almost makes worthwhile the loss of the Ashes and the turbulence which accompanied it. For the first time since W G Grace was a lad, or so it feels, England will announce a Test squad whose identity is wreathed in speculation and doubt.

Back in the day, before continuity and giving players a proper chance became the fashion and that, lo and behold, led to England winning, the team used to change as if by rote. This policy actually lasted long after W G shuffled off, and well into the 1990s England would think nothing of sending out P45s to players after a couple of matches.

Starting with the tenure of David Graveney as chairman of selectors and continuing under Geoff Miller, whose title for reasons never properly explained was amended to national selector, the philosophy was altered. For almost a decade, players with the right stuff have been carefully identified and offered the faith of the selectors.

When this led eventually to England becoming the No 1 team in the world and winning the Ashes three times in a row the side remained unremarkably similar from Test to Test and series to series. It was no fun predicting the XI any longer because it was set in stone. And then came catastrophe. The Ashes were surrendered, the team fell apart.

As it happened, this has coincided with the assumption to office of a new coach, Peter Moores, and a new panel of selectors, led by James Whitaker. At Trent Bridge, Whitaker will announce his first squad of 12 for a Test, the first of a two-match series against Sri Lanka starting at Lord's a week Thursday.

By general consensus only six players are definitely in the squad. Of those, one has played a solitary, unconvincing Test and another was omitted from the most recent Test XI. They are, respectively, Gary Ballance and Joe Root, both of Yorkshire.

The other quartet who will assuredly be on Whitaker's lips are Alastair Cook, the captain; Ian Bell, his senior lieutenant and the side's leading batsman; and the new-ball fast-bowling partnership of Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad.

Between them these four have played 360 Tests. Bell, all being well, will play his 100th in the second match of this series at Headingley, Anderson and Broad have opened for England more times (38) than any pair in history including Fred Trueman and Brian Statham, and Steve Harmison and Matthew Hoggard.

When they roll up at Lord's they may be met by a cast of relative strangers. England's selectors were locked in talks to select at least one and probably two other seamers, at least three more batsmen – one of them probably an opener – a wicketkeeper and somebody, anybody, capable of bowling spin.

The smart money is on Sam Robson of Middlesex becoming Cook's eighth opening partner in Tests. Robson did all that was expected of him for England Lions last winter, has begun this summer adequately and has a champion in his county's director of cricket, Angus Fraser, one of the new Test selectors.

If the selectors were thinking outside the rigid modes of elevation, they might have gone for Mark Stoneman, the diligent Durham batsman who is bang in form and has scored two hundreds and a ninety this season. Or they might go for Root, who lost form in Australia but will return because England really do need some form of constancy even in these times.

Root always seemed destined to be an England opener for a decade but a confluence of circumstances forced him down the order. The man in possession is Michael Carberry, who played all five Tests in the winter Ashes without either failing or succeeding.

Down the order, Ballance has to be given a proper run. Bell will bat at three or four. The choice thereafter seems to be between Moeen Ali, Samit Patel, Eoin Morgan and Ben Stokes. Ali, who bowls reasonable off-spin, appears to have the selectors' support in a way that poor Patel, who has scored oodles of runs this summer, does not. Stokes, fit again after breaking his hand on a dressing-room locker, simply has to play. Any England team needs players like him – and he can also fill one of the seamers' berths.

They will probably avoid picking a specialist spinner because they can. But it is postponing the inevitable. England are in deep trouble in the turning department.

The keeper will be Matt Prior after he kept wicket for 172 overs for Sussex this week, proving his Achilles injury has subsided. They need Prior's experience but they also need the Prior of 2012, not of 2013. Jos Buttler lies in wait.

Chris Jordan will be the other seamer but Liam Plunkett, bowling like the wind for Yorkshire, would give the tourists the hurry-up five years after his last Test. It is a fresh start and it is fascinating.

New era? Who England could – and should – pick

The bold choice

Alastair Cook, Mark Stoneman, Ian Bell, Gary Ballance, Samit Patel, Eoin Morgan, Ben Stokes, Jos Buttler, Liam Plunkett, Stuart Broad, Jimmy Anderson.

The probable choice

Cook, Sam Robson, Bell, Joe Root, Ballance, Moeen Ali, Stokes, Matt Prior, Chris Jordan, Broad, Anderson.