With Ben Stokes unlikely to bowl in India Test series following knee surgery, England must work out how to balance their side; Harry Brook’s withdrawal increases likelihood that Ben Foakes returns as wicketkeeper and that Jonny Bairstow plays as specialist batter
Image: How will England balance their side in India with captain Ben Stokes not bowling?
As England bid to become the first away side since themselves in 2012 to win a Test series in India, we can be sure of how they will play – the Bazball way – but we cannot be sure who will play.
Balancing the side will be tricky across the five-Test contest with captain Ben Stokes pretty much certain not to bowl as he recovers from the knee surgery he underwent after the Cricket World Cup.
Harry Brook’s withdrawal for personal reasons – he could possibly return later in the tour – gives England another dilemma, although perhaps now guarantees Ben Foakes will return as wicketkeeper.
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Image: England captain Stokes is set to play as a specialist batter in India
Foakes was jettisoned for The Ashes following the return to fitness of Jonny Bairstow after an awful leg break but he may regain the gloves with Bairstow playing as a specialist batter.
We look at England’s conundrums ahead of the series opener in Hyderabad from Thursday, which you can follow with a live blog across the Sky Sports App and on skysports.com.
England Test squad for India series
Ben Stokes (captain), Ollie Pope (vice-captain), Rehan Ahmed, James Anderson, Gus Atkinson, Jonny Bairstow, Shoaib Bashir, Zak Crawley, Ben Duckett, Ben Foakes, Tom Hartley, Dan Lawrence, Jack Leach, Ollie Robinson, Joe Root, Mark Wood
What of the top seven with Stokes not bowling?
With Stokes, we hear, unavailable as a bowling option, there may need to be a rejigging. Stokes looks “good to go” for the first Test, according to coach Brendon McCullum, just not as an all-rounder.
Ollie Pope is fit again after dislocating his shoulder in the second Ashes Test last summer but slotting him back in at No 3 in place of all-rounder Moeen Ali, who quit Test cricket in September, might not be a straightforward decision, even in light of Brook’s withdrawal.
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If Pope does return and Foakes takes Brook’s place in the XI, England will only have Joe Root as a genuine bowling candidate in their top seven which would leave a lot of work for four frontline bowlers, perhaps spinners Rehan Ahmed and Jack Leach plus two seamers.
By leaving out Pope and perhaps bumping everyone else up a slot, England could get another bowler in, either an extra spinner in the uncapped Tom Hartley or Shoaib Bashir – the latter is likely to join his team-mates in India on Tuesday after a visa hiccup – or a quick.
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That would leave Rehan at No 7, which is possibly a slot too high at this stage of his career, so the likelihood is that England go in with four main bowlers and part-time off-spinner Root as the fifth.
Another way for England to go would be to select Brook’s replacement, Dan Lawrence, in place of either Pope or Foakes.
Lawrence batted at No 3 on England’s 2021 tour of India, albeit with little success, and he would bolster the bowling with his off-spin, something that yielded a four-wicket haul in a recent Big Bash match for Melbourne Stars against Hobart Hurricanes.
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Foakes set to keep wicket – but which bowlers will play?
Foakes is England’s best wicketkeeper but that could not keep him in the side for The Ashes with England preferring the belligerent batting of Bairstow instead.
Bairstow’s blemishes behind the stumps early on against Australia only added to the clamour for Foakes and the latter’s superior glovework could be valuable on the turning pitches in India.
Brook’s departure now leaves Foakes in prime position to play, allowing Bairstow to play as a specialist batter, with England’s likely top seven, in order, openers Zak Crawley and Ben Duckett followed by Pope, Root, Bairstow, Stokes and Foakes.
Image: Ben Foakes is back in the England squad – but will he get in the XI in India?
Bowling-wise, the fit-again Leach looks nailed on to play as one of the frontline spinners, probably alongside one of livewire leggie Rehan and left-armer Hartley with Bashir, to start with at least, along for the experience.
As for the seamers, England need to pick two, or three, out of James Anderson, Mark Wood, Ollie Robinson and Gus Atkinson.
Wood appears a shoo-in following his electric Ashes series – the paceman having transformed England’s fortunes after playing the third Test onwards, taking 14 wickets in three matches at an average of 20.21 as he bowled at scorching speeds.
Atkinson is the other genuine quick in the England squad, hoping for a Test debut after his white-ball bows back in September, but may be Wood’s back-up for the series opener and then get a go later on if Wood, and his notoriously brittle body, needs a rest.
Image: James Anderson will be hoping to bounce back from a disappointing Ashes series when he faces India
That leaves Anderson and Robinson possibly fighting for one spot.
Anderson has the experience – 690 Test wickets, a career average under 30 in India, and an average of 15.87 when England last toured the country in 2021 as he bagged eight wickets and went at below two runs an over. But the 41-year-old suffered a chastening Ashes last summer, with his five wickets in four games coming at an average over 80 as he struggled to find his usual movement.
The seamer said at the time that he had “no interest” in following Stuart Broad into retirement and now, having worked on his run-up, will hope to play a key role in the subcontinent as he closes in on 700 Test scalps.
He may get the nod over Robinson – who has not played since the third Ashes Test – at the start of the India tour before the pair rotate.
Potential England XI for first India Test: Zak Crawley, Ben Duckett, Ollie Pope (vice-captain), Joe Root, Jonny Bairstow, Ben Stokes (captain), Ben Foakes (wicketkeeper), Rehan Ahmed, Jack Leach, Mark Wood, James Anderson
Follow England’s five-Test series in India across Sky Sports’ digital platforms with live blogs and reports. The opening game is in Hyderabad from Thursday (4am UK time).
India vs England fixtures
- First Test, Hyderabad: Thursday January 25 – Monday January 29
- Second Test, Visakhapatnam: Friday February 2 – Tuesday February 6
- Third Test, Rajkot: Thursday February 15 – Monday February 19
- Fourth Test, Ranchi: Friday February 23 – Tuesday February 27
- Fifth Test, Dharamshala: Thursday March 7 – Monday March 11