England get their winter of Test cricket underway at 10pm on Wednesday, with two games against New Zealand preceding four Test championship fixtures in South Africa. This series also offers England a fresh start; Chris Silverwood, England’s new head coach, will have been counting days until the first game at the Bay Oval, which represents a great opportunity for him to get his teeth into the role. England have struggled a little on recent tours to New Zealand, so this series represents an excellent chance to see how his players fare in testing circumstances.
A couple of spots, however, remain contested. Joe Denly’s fitness will likely dictate whether Zak Crawley makes his England bow, while Chris Woakes and Sam Curran look set for a battle for the third seamer spot. It looks as though Denly’s been given the all-clear; so the top three looks set, while most of the murmurings seem to indicate that Curran will get the nod at number eight. Curran’s selection could be considered the more progressive and forward-thinking one, and Chris Woakes’ form in overseas Tests probably puts him in a close second. Nonetheless, the Warwickshire Wizard’s ability with ball and bat make him impossible to ignore.
How England should line up
1) Rory Burns
2) Dom Sibley
3) Joe Denly
4) Joe Root (c)
5) Ollie Pope
6) Ben Stokes
7) Jos Buttler
8) Sam Curran
9) Jofra Archer
10) Jack Leach
11) Stuart Broad
That XI would offer enough stability to the side while also injecting some important freshness. With the spine of the team intact, Sibley, Pope, and Curran would be operating with the backing of consistent performers. In Root, Stokes, Broad, and Buttler, England will also be hoping they have three rejuvenated leaders. All four have had a decent break, and should be fresh ahead of a big winter. Ben Stokes may have proved last summer that he can consistently pull off sporting miracles, but even he must have appreciated the break. Root will feel he’s due a big series, while Buttler will want to put his place in the Test team beyond any doubt.
Rory Burns, Joe Denly, and Jack Leach are all interesting names on that list, as they’re not ones we’d necessarily have expected to see there 18 months ago. They’re not fresh faces, no, but their collective presence in the starting XI for England’s future tours are not guaranteed, either. All three men had more than respectable Ashes series, though, and will be looking to put their inclusion for the foreseeable future beyond any doubt with convincing performances here. For Burns and Denly, it’s all about the runs they score – Leach, on the other hand, will likely be tasked with offering England’s opening bowlers the respite they need by tying down an end. This holding role may be slightly unfamiliar to a man used to plying his trade on the helpful tracks of Taunton, but he’ll need to show adaptability throughout this series to claim the title of England’s go-to spinner.
As for New Zealand, expect to see Tim Southee and Trent Boult running in at England’s top order when the hosts come to bowl. A few scars may remain from England’s most recent tour and the 58 all out that accompanied it but this new-look top three will be looking to banish those demons at the first time of asking. Lockie Ferguson (if selected) will play second fiddle, and we can expect to see plenty of short stuff from both him and Neil Wagner. As for their batting line up, Kane Williamson will look to emulate Steve Smith’s efforts during this summer’s Ashes. A similar performance might be required, too; he is New Zealand’s stand-out batsman, and will likely need to perform in both fixtures to give his side the edge.
The next couple of weeks could tell us a lot about how Silverwood will look to mould his England team. The result, while important, comes in a close second to the type of performances the tourists deliver.
One thing’s for sure, though. Test cricket is back in full focus, exactly where it should be.