Alastair Cook and Peter Moores sat down together for the first time at England’s training base at Loughborough on Thursday to begin their task of raising English cricket from the depths to which it sank over the stormiest of winters. It is part salvage operation, restoring the likes of Ian Bell and James Anderson to their former seaworthiness, and part new build.
The first selection is for next month’s one-day international against Scotland in Aberdeen, a spring venue as far removed from Chittagong and the Dutch humiliation as is possible in cricketing terms, but it is the assembly of the side to face Sri Lanka in the first of the summer’s Test matches at Lord’s in June – following a five-match one-day series – that carries most interest and will see most debate.
There are places available; Kevin Pietersen is gone – if never forgotten; he will see to that – there is a vacancy alongside Cook, a wicketkeeper to be settled upon, as well as a spinner and probably a seamer too. It is a long time since a domestic season began with such a buzz.
“Looking at county scores the last few weeks, people are scoring big hundreds, taking wickets and that’s exciting,” said Cook, who has himself hit two centuries for Essex. “People are realising there are places up for grabs and trying to grab them.”
The batting wannabes – or remember-mes
Sam Robson impressed England’s management over the winter, and few managed that. The Sydney-born opener stood out on the Lions tour to Sri Lanka in front of an admiring Graham Gooch, who remains close to Cook and knows a thing or two about opening the batting.
Robson began the season as favourite to partner the England captain – provided he scored domestic runs. After a wobbly start at Hove, Robson now has 216 of them, including 163 made against Nottinghamshire at Lord’s.
His name is pencilled in, but there is competition. Nick Compton’s international ambition remains despite the chastening end to his initial Test experience. Compton scored an unbeaten century to steer Somerset away from defeat at Durham on Wednesday. Yorkshire’s highly regarded Alex Lees has also started well, although his international days may still be a year or two down the line.
Robson remains the outstanding candidate. Varun Chopra has been a consistent scorer at the top of Warwickshire’s order in recent seasons and a regular in the England Lions set-up but averages 35 from four innings in this campaign, while Michael Carberry’s attempt to patch up the boats he burnt so spectacularly with his damning verdict on his time with England still requires plenty of work. The Hampshire opener has scored a century but has nearly 160 runs fewer than the England captain, having had six innings to Cook’s four.
The search for middle-order balance
This has thrown up one obvious name. Gary Ballance began his Test career with England at 17 for 4 in the final Test in Sydney. He battled for an hour and a half but innings of 18 and seven followed by a modest one-day series did not make an outstanding case for staying put. Yet if county form is to be rewarded, the Harare-born left-hander deserves another opportunity. He has begun with scores of 77, five and 174. The latter may have been against a limited Northampton attack but runs in Leeds in April mean something.
There is plenty of Yorkshire interest in the middle order. Joe Root’s season proper is yet to begin following his broken thumb. After a failure for the second team, his summer starts in earnest at Lord’s on Sunday in a match that will keep Angus Fraser, juggling roles with Middlesex and as an England selector, keenly interested. Adil Rashid has already provided further evidence of his run scoring and given the lack of spinning options and the early-season conditions Rashid has an opportunity to make a timely point at Lord’s.
The keeping question
Of all the places to be discussed by Fraser, James Whitaker, Moores and Cook, it is who will wear the gloves against Sri Lanka that may well take up most time. Matt Prior, who endured his troubles in Australia with admirable stoicism, opened the season with a bristling century against a good Middlesex attack at Hove. It was like the Prior of old but that the Prior of old can never entirely return was make clear by him missing Sussex’s next game due to his troublesome Achilles. It is an injury that will require careful nursing, but the 32-year-old still looks England’s safest pair of hands.
Jonny Bairstow, the incumbent, also has injury worries, although Yorkshire expect an early return from his broken finger against Durham next week. He will need prompt runs. Craig Kieswetter has begun solidly having been given Somerset’s faith ahead of Jos Buttler, who has just returned for Lancashire following a post-Twenty20 break.
Seams to be coming together nicely
There is reasonable satisfaction to be found for Moores and co when it comes to pace bowling. Anderson is getting overs under his belt, while under Fraser’s watchful eye Steve Finn has made unexpectedly rapid progress. Nobody has more than his 15 wickets.
Sussex’s Chris Jordan is collecting admirers in the long-form of the game to go with his one-day promise and Tymal Mills, whom England continue to imagine hopefully as their own version of Mitchell Johnson, is getting game time, and wickets, for Essex, which has not been as common an occurrence as hoped for. The game against Surrey was the 21-year-old’s 25th first-class outing, although as a county colleague the England captain will be well aware of what he can, and can’t, do.