England complete a brilliant Test series in Sri Lanka…….
After a streak of eight winless Tests and eleven winless Tests abroad, it is safe to say that England cricket was reeling. Their permutations were questionable, the form of their players dismal and it needed a strong individual, who could be bold and courageous, to guide the team to the top once again. Enter Ed Smith, who was not only analytically superior but a shrewd observer of the game as well. As a journalist, he had dissed aside the English selection panel over the years for their tendency to take the safe route on occasions – ignoring Jos Buttler even though coach Trevor Bayliss was eager to have him in the Test side, remains one such example.
Hence, once he was appointed as the national coach in April, a lot was expected of him. He was expected to let go of the orthodox and imbibe a brave stance; reject the conventional and spring a surprise, even if it meant picking players that would never have been selected, or letting go of cricketers who had been termed as the ‘future Test stars from England.’
In his first-ever series as a selector – against Pakistan in May – Smith paved the way for a historic selection as he called Jos Buttler into the Test side. After a disastrous tour to Australia and New Zealand, while the English management was looking at more “traditional” Test players, Smith swooped in and called Buttler into the side, who had impressed with five consecutive half-centuries in the Indian Premier League. While many termed the move as a potential blunder, the selector, who had always seen the talent in Buttler, impressed straightaway, as he exited the Pakistan series with the Man of the Series award. In 10 games since his comeback, the player has 760 runs, at a stunning average of 44.70 with a strike-rate of 68.10.
Buttler’s intent and his ability to break the shackles lower down the order is exactly what England needed, and along with the arrival of 20-year-old Sam Curran, the lower middle order for England bears a different look. With the lack of variety in the bowling line-up vastly exposed in their tours to Australia and New Zealand last winter, Smith picked up Sam Curran, who, he believed, could create an impact with his left-arm swing. The Surrey all-rounder has been a revelation since he made his debut against Pakistan at Leeds – scoring some crucial runs at no. 8 and picking up 14 wickets at 25.14. He was the Man of the Series against India, and as the formidable Virat Kohli-led team was unable to keep the youngest of the Curran brothers out of the game, it did appear that Smith had a long-term plan in place.
However, what has stood out is his ability to offer options to Joe Root and Bayliss than present them with short-term answers. When the series against India came calling, England was struggling in the spin department – Jack Leach had been injured, Moeen Ali was not in form, Dominic Bess was vastly inexperienced and it is here that Smith turned to Adil Rashid, who had not played a Test game since 2016.
With Rashid suggesting that he was not keen on playing red-ball cricket either, Smith’s selection was largely criticized, for here he was, pushing an unexcited Rashid into playing a format he was indifferent about. However, 22 wickets in 7 games later, including 12 in the series against Sri Lanka, has once again proved his decision to be a masterstroke, and as England whitewashed Sri Lanka in Asia after what seems like ages, the innovation, the positive approach and the fearlessness of selecting young players in the side is what has stood out.
The entry of young guns Ben Foakes and Olly Stone, who picked up 37 wickets bowling at 90mph for Warwickshire this season at a stunning average of 12.27, and the re-entry of Joe Denly to the squad after almost ten years as he provided a solid option at the top against Sri Lanka presented the management with a happy selection headache, whilst also allowing them to change their combination according to the conditions on offer.
“We have a front line legspinner [Rashid], a frontline offspinner [Moeen], a frontline left-arm orthodox [Jack Leach], plus an effective part-time legspinner [Denly] and a decent part-time offspinner [Joe Root],” Smith had proclaimed after announcing his team for Sri Lanka.
“The way we’ve set up as a team, we have quite a few permutations. This summer we were playing four seamers and two spinners at the end, having started off with four [seamers] and one [spinner]. You’d expect those proportions to change in Sri Lanka. And we have the capacity to [change].”
This truckload of options is exactly what the English team was in dire need of. If Smith had been in-charge before the Ashes, maybe we would have seen Ali being spared the nightmare of playing match after match where he clearly wasn’t effective. With a strong pool of all-rounders now, the England team can no longer be forced to play with Sam Curran in Australia the next time they tour Down Under, as his game is not well suited to the Kookaburra. We might have Dawid Malan, whose style of play suits overseas conditions according to Smith, turn out in either South Africa or New Zealand in the near future, and this approach, wherein a player is selected according to the condition that he will best excel in, has led to England’s success in the recent past.
Yes, some cricketer might fail to make a mark – Ollie Pope being a case in point – but as long as Smith keeps an eye out for the players that he believes in and continues to take decisions without being inhibited, England cricket will gain.