It’s that time of year again.
The County Championship season is in full swing and all eyes are on which players are pressing for an England place with the Test summer not too far away.
Considering England’s woeful recent record in Test cricket – one win and 11 defeats in their previous 17 games – and with a new director of cricket (Rob Key) and captain (Ben Stokes) in place, not to mention a fresh coach and selector at some stage, there could be plenty of places up for grabs.
Not at No 6, mind you, with Stokes confirming during his unveiling as skipper he will switch to that spot from No 5 in a move he feels is best for a team he hopes to “make great again”. Stokes is also seeking “selfless” players who “make decisions based on how they can win a game”.
Here, we look at some of the names perhaps in with a shot of featuring against New Zealand when the three-Test series begins at Lord’s on June 2, live on Sky Sports.
Sussex star Tom Haines was the leading run-scorer during the 2021 County Championship – 1,176 in 13 matches at an average of 47.04 – and has started this season in fine fettle, too, with two fifties and a career-best 243.
We know Key likes Haines with his final tweet before becoming MD saying he looked “a b****y good player in my humble opinion.” Key’s opinion is now not so humble, it has real stroke, and he is set to have a role in picking players initially, with a coach and national selector yet to be appointed.
The England Test side has featured many Surrey or former Surrey players over recent times – Rory Burns, Mark Stoneman, Ollie Pope, Dom Sibley – and perhaps Ryan Patel could be next.
The 24-year-old has a modest first-class average of 27.18 overall but is averaging 53 in Division One this term, helped by a century against a strong-looking Somerset attack as well as further fifties against Hampshire and last season’s champions Warwickshire.
Kent have two in-form openers in Daniel Bell-Drummond and Ben Compton. One of them has been touted for higher honours since his teenage years, the other is a late developer.
Key, speaking before Bell-Drummond had turned 20, said his former Kent colleague had the potential to play 100 Tests for England but, nine years later, he has yet to play one with his red-ball career not kicking on as he would have liked since scoring a 92-ball hundred in a tour game against Australia in 2015 and then averaging 68 for Kent the following campaign.
Bell-Drummond’s first three innings this term yielded a top score of 11 but he has since struck successive centuries against Hampshire and Yorkshire.
Still, he has been overshadowed by fellow 28-year-old Compton, who, after being released by Nottinghamshire at the end of 2021, began 2022 with three hundreds in as many innings, including two against Lancashire, when he spent a combined 856 minutes at the crease. Compton – cousin of Nick and grandson of Denis – has followed that up with scores of 89 and 93.
Gloucestershire’s Chris Dent has been a consistent campaigner for years – he passed 10,000 career first-class runs during his double ton at The Kia Oval last week – and may very well come into the England conversation.
But Alex Lees, who partnered Zak Crawley at the top of the order in the Caribbean in March, will be hopeful of retaining his place after some positive glimpses against West Indies and two tons since returning to county action with Durham.
The middle-order options
Key spoke of the “logjam” in England’s middle order when addressing the media for the first time since his appointment and he is not wrong.
There are ample options aside from guaranteed picks Stokes and Joe Root, men in possession Jonny Bairstow and Dan Lawrence, and Ollie Pope, who travelled to the West Indies but did not play. Lawrence is currently nursing a hamstring injury but Pope has churned out runs early season.
Two of the contenders, in James Bracey and Ben Duckett, have previous Test experience, with the former playing two games against New Zealand last summer and the latter four in the subcontinent in 2016. Neither set the world alight back then but have impressed in the Championship this term.
Bracey has notched two tons for Gloucestershire in Division One, while Duckett has passed fifty in each of his last five innings for Nottinghamshire in Division Two. Yorkshire’s Dawid Malan, jettisoned after The Ashes, has hit one hundred and three fifties in the top flight but whether his age – he turns 35 in September – counts against him remains to be seen.
As for some of the uncapped candidates, they are headed by Lancashire’s Josh Bohannon and Yorkshire’s Harry Brook, although Somerset’s Tom Abell and Surrey’s Jamie Smith are among others to have starred.
Bohannon averaged over 50 for the Red Rose county last season and is averaging just shy of 95 this term after scoring a double century against Gloucestershire, while Brook – called into England’s T20 squad over the winter – is averaging 171 after a spectacular start to the season.
The 23-year-old has passed fifty in all six of his first-class innings this year with his three centuries in that time including 194 against Kent last week when he narrowly missed out on a maiden double ton. Somerset skipper Abell has struck three fifty-plus scores in a row, while Surrey youngster Smith, 21, amassed an unbeaten 234 against Gloucestershire.
Nick Gubbins is also making a late run. Hampshire’s former Middlesex No 3 followed a half-century against Kent with twin tons against Lancashire last week, when the bowling attack included James Anderson and Hasan Ali.
Ben Foakes, widely recognised as England’s finest wicketkeeper, is the man in possession and started the season well with the bat for Surrey – one hundred and one fifty in four innings – before missing last week’s game against Gloucestershire with a stiff back.
But an interesting part of Stokes’ media appearance came when he declined to confirm whether he and Bairstow would simply switch places in the order, raising the possibility the latter could regain the gloves.
That remains a long-held ambition for Bairstow but after his recent Test centuries against Australia and West Indies as a specialist batter, England may be wary of making that change.
Stokes also spoke of how helpful a sounding board the sharp-minded Jos Buttler was for him when he captained England on a one-off basis in 2020 while Root was on paternity leave.
Buttler was dropped post-Ashes after struggling for runs and spilling catches but the temptation could be there once again to see if he can finally turn his white-ball genius into consistent Test runs, even though that has not happened in a 57-game career so far.
That white-ball genius has been on display to the max in the IPL, with Buttler amassing 588 runs in 10 innings, including three centuries.
Sam Billings – who Key knows well from his Kent days, made his Test debut over the winter and was even touted as a potential captaincy candidate – might have a sniff, too.
For a real bolter, though, how about Warwickshire’s Michael Burgess? The 27-year-old has been keeping for the Edgbaston side and reeled off consecutive innings in the 170s.
With Stokes still seeing James Anderson and Stuart Broad in England’s best XI, the number of bowling spots up for grabs looks to have diminished, although Ollie Robinson’s lack of recent action may open up a place.
Essex’s Sam Cook – 12 wickets so far this season – has reportedly added a yard of pace, while Surrey seamer Jamie Overton has always had more than a yard of pace. In fact, he is one of the county scene’s quickest.
Unfortunately, he is also one of county scene’s most injury-affected with various ailments halting his progress but he has snared 11 wickets in two games for Surrey and could add the fire England lack with Jofra Archer, Mark Wood and Olly Stone on the sidelines.
Surrey’s Reece Topley – another man whose career has been blighted by injury – would add a left-arm option, while Durham’s Matthew Potts has pocketed 18 wickets this campaign and has the benefit of the new England captain knowing all about him.
Middlesex seamers Toby Roland-Jones and Tom Helm have taken a combined 29 wickets, with Roland-Jones impressing after a horror run of injuries that started when he appeared nailed on for an Ashes place in 2017/18 and just would not let up.
The Lord’s pair could also be in the shake-up, alongside Anderson, Broad and the seamers who toured the West Indies in Chris Woakes, Craig Overton, Saqib Mahmood and Matthew Fisher, although the latter is currently out with a back problem.
Mahmood is not on the treatment table and could very well be in the first XI against New Zealand with his reverse-swing in the Caribbean a couple of months back one of the bright spots.
Jack Leach is the current incumbent but would probably be the first to admit that he does not have an iron grip on the position of No 1 spinner after an up and down winter.
Lancashire leg-spinner Matt Parkinson, who has been in umpteen England Test squads without actually getting a game, has had a touch of magic about him in first-class cricket – 113 wickets in 34 games, of which 11 have come in two matches this term. He would be an exciting selection.
Then there is Parkinson’s twin brother Callum, a left-arm spinner at Leicestershire.
Elsewhere, Nottinghamshire left-arrmer Liam Patterson-White – the leading spin-bowling wicket-taker in the country so far this term with 18 at an average of 18.50 – and Essex’s former Derbyshire leg-spinner Matt Critchley also offer aptitude with the bat.
Patterson-White has not shown that this season as yet but Critchley has, with a century against Kent during round one – the fifth first-class hundred of his career to go with 18 fifties.
Watch England take on New Zealand in the opening Test of the summer, live on Sky Sports from Thursday, June 2.