England have announced a 16-man squad and six reserves for the first two Tests against India. With the four-match series starting on 5 February, selectors took the decision to split the tour to alleviate the strain of a taxing schedule and months on end in bio-secure bubbles.
Thus, there will be a few moving parts over the next two months. Jofra Archer, Ben Stokes and Rory Burns will be reintroduced with Sam Curran, Mark Wood and Jonny Bairstow returning to the United Kingdom after the conclusion of the Sri Lanka series. Archer and Stokes were rested for Sri Lanka, while Burns was given a leave of absence to remain at home for the birth of his first child.
The trio of Curran, Wood and Bairstow will play in the second Test at Galle, starting on Friday, go home for a few weeks and then fly out to India to rejoin the squad for the third and fourth Tests. The rest of the squad in Sri Lanka will travel to India directly, aside from Craig Overton who will return to the UK unless he required to cover an injury.
It was also confirmed Jos Buttler will only play the first India Test in Chennai. He will leave the tour on 10 February to have an extended period at home before flying back on 23 February on a charter flight with the rest of the limited-overs squad to prepare for the white-ball leg of three Twenty20s and three ODIs, starting from 12 March.
That means Ben Foakes is set to take the gloves for the second Test, with Gloucestershire’s James Bracey, one of the reserves, as the back-up wicketkeeper. Though Bairstow will return for the last two fixtures, Foakes is expected to get a clean run of three Tests to add to his five caps. The last of those was picked up against West Indies at the start of 2019.
With a full programme of red and white ball fixtures in 2021, culminating in an Ashes series and Twenty20 World Cup at the end of the year, the England and Wales Cricket Board are taking a long-term view on selection matters. Workloads will be monitored carefully, especially those of multi-format players, a group which also includes Test captain Joe Root, Chris Woakes and Moeen Ali.
The ECB believe they have the depth to pick strong XIs while preparing for fixtures down the line. Just as important is their sensitivity around player welfare regarding the mental toll of spending months on end in various states of quarantine to adhere to the strict Covid-19 protocols required to get these matches played.
“This is something we passionately believe in," said national selector Ed Smith. "The concept of a tour needs to be modernised - we're not travelling by boat, we don't go away for five months at a time, we need to be more nimble.
“If we need to break a tour up to get people in, get people out for their own good and for England's good we'll do it. This is a policy we really believe in.
“We are being pragmatic, the pragmatism being if you keep ppl in a bubble unchanged for three months through January, February, March, and expect them to play every game in every format they will not be able to play to their best and England will be damaged as a result."
The players who were consulted at the start of the winter when this elaborate plan was first concocted. Smith referenced a particular chat he had with Bairstow at Loughborough regarding the decision to stand him down for the first half of the India series.
Bairstow marked a first Test appearance in over a year with scores of 47 and 35 not out in the seven-wicket win over Sri Lanka last week. Should he pocket another couple of scores over the next five days, could he request to carry on into India? Smith does not anticipate such an eventuality, not least because the pre-emptive break was agreed upon with Bairstow. But he did appreciate the approach is ever-evolving and will be subject to tweaks as the year and the pandemic develops.
“Of course if we believe we need to revisit a decision we'll revisit it but the decision anchored in flexibility and pragmatism and doing the right thing for the player and the team.”
Surrey’s Ollie Pope will also travel to India and will be added to the squad when passed fit. Pope has been recovering from a shoulder injury he sustained during the Test series against Pakistan. He is an unofficial tour member out in Sri Lanka, unavailable for selection but slowly building himself back up to match fitness after five months out under the watchful eyes of the England coaches and medical staff..
He is rehabbing well and was able to bat in the intra-squad tour match out in Sri Lanka, top-scoring for Team Buttler with 58 not out against Team Root.
Joe Root (Yorkshire) (captain), Jofra Archer (Sussex), Moeen Ali (Worcestershire), James Anderson (Lancashire), Dom Bess (Yorkshire), Stuart Broad (Nottinghamshire), Rory Burns (Surrey), Jos Buttler (Lancashire), Zak Crawley (Kent), Ben Foakes (Surrey), Dan Lawrence (Essex), Jack Leach (Somerset), Dom Sibley (Warwickshire), Ben Stokes (Durham), Olly Stone (Warwickshire), Chris Woakes (Warwickshire).
Friday 5-9 February: 1st Test – India v England, MA Chidambaram Stadium, Chennai
Saturday 13-17 February: 2nd Test – India v England, MA Chidambaram Stadium, Chennai
Wednesday 24-28 February: 3rd Test - India v England, Sardar Patel Stadium, Ahmedabad
Thursday 4-8 March: 4th Test – India v England, Sardar Patel Stadium, Ahmedabad