England remain coy on their selection plans for Wednesday’s opening Ashes Test in Brisbane, preferring to leave it until the eleventh hour to judge the pitch, weather, and their players’ form and fitness.
In stark contrast to Australia, who laid their cards firmly on the table by naming their team days early, England will wait to name their XI. Their preparation has been badly disrupted by Brisbane rain, which they suspect could lead to a shortened match at the Gabba and affect the balance of their XI.
The message from head coach Chris Silverwood, just like his captain Joe Root, was that “all options remain on the table”. One thing he did confirm, however, is that Ben Stokes – back from a break for injury and personal reasons – is ready to go.
England, who have more than 30 players in Brisbane because the Lions are with them, will name a squad of 13 or 14 a day or two out from the game, before slimming it down to 11 as close to the toss as possible.
“I will make sure Joe has plenty of choice in the group to go in whichever direction he wants,” said Silverwood. “There is the weather to take into consideration. Is it going to be a shortened game? Obviously pitch conditions as well.
“We have had a lot of rain here. I know the ground dries very quickly but at the same time we have to take into consideration what the wicket looks like and how it develops over the next couple of days and obviously the weather forecast as well.”
The two principle head-scratchers for England are the No6 slot, where Ollie Pope’s promise and Jonny Bairstow’s experience will have to be separated, and the shape of their bowling attack. Jack Leach seems likely but not certain to play, with England yet to decide how many seam bowlers they need on a pitch that is expected to have at least a green tinge.
Pope has pedigree on flat pitches at the Oval, where he averages 99.94 in first-class cricket, and had what appeared a breakout tour of South Africa two years ago. Bairstow is a veteran of three Ashes tours whose form has fallen away since a century in Perth in 2017, due to struggles against the straight ball. He showed plenty of promise this summer without managing a big score.
Before last week’s two days of warm-up cricket, Bairstow was ahead of Pope in the middle-order race. However Bairstow had a tough day on Friday, being dismissed twice for just 11 runs, including a first-ball duck.
“It is one of the talking points we have at the moment,” Silverwood said. “As we stand, it is keeping a close eye on the two of them and we will make a decision closer to the time over who we think is the right man to go into that. Both of them are playing well at the moment in the nets so that is the talking point as we stand.
“Jonny has good experiences and memories of playing here, he has been successful here before. Then you have the promise of young Ollie. We know he is a good player, and have to take in the fact the wickets here will suit the way he plays. We saw him get some good runs at the end of last summer at the Oval and we know his pedigree is very good. Those are all things that will be thrown in the mix and taken into consideration.”
Of the bowlers, Silverwood would not rule out an all-seam attack, saying “there’s potential for everything”, although Root had earlier noted how the Gabba was a venue spinners enjoy, because of the ample bounce.
When asked if England needed Mark Wood’s pace at a ground known for its help for quick bowlers (something they have spoken about before), Silverwood sat on the fence.
“We’ve been successful without pace as well,” he said. “Yes, we like pace and I know it’s one of the things I banged on about early on when we talked about the Ashes. We’ve Woody here, but we’ve got other bowlers with great skill sets as well.
“The disciplines are sharp, the areas that they bowl, the various types of movement we can create. And we have been successful with an attack which hasn’t really had that pace of Wood or people like that in it. So I think we’ve got the skill set to be successful here and the pace is one part of that skill set.”
Australia’s early announcement allows England plenty of time to plan for what they will face.
“If they feel confident enough to do that right now then good on them,” said Silverwood. “We will be keeping our options open as we always do. If they feel in a place to do that then great.”