First course promises a Test series to savour even without Ben Stokes

First course promises a Test series to savour even without Ben Stokes


e had no right to expect such enthralling drama in what we assumed would be the most sterile of settings this summer. The West Indies series made for good viewing (and listening) but this was better. The England and Pakistan players at Old Trafford were utterly committed in a deserted stadium, the quality of some of the cricket was excellent and the outcome on a knife-edge.

They have reminded us Test cricket can be the most compelling and complete form of the game, complex too, yet accessible to those with only a passing interest.

Against the odds they have allowed us to escape from grim realities and to indulge in the usual arguments about who should be given the gloves or the new ball or the push. Both teams were terrific: they bowled venomous deliveries, they unveiled breathtaking strokes; they were flawed, noisy and passionate. You cannot ask for much more in an empty stadium.

Hopefully the excitement can be sustained over the next two Tests even though the series will no longer be decorated by the presence of Ben Stokes, one of the most charismatic cricketers in the world.

The Test at Old Trafford was a tough game to lose, a brilliant one to win. That is always the way when a side turn the tables so dramatically to win in four days.

Pakistan were the weary ones on Sunday morning but Misbah-ul Haq and Azhar Ali will remain calm and on the evidence of the first Test the squad are fiercely focused on the challenges ahead.

In all probability their team will change less than England’s at the Ageas Bowl on Thursday. Given that England are in the process of playing six Tests in seven weeks, committed to some form of rotation and now without their key all-rounder, that is not so surprising.

The rotation policy has been applied only to the pacemen – why not the spinners or even the wicketkeeper? At Old Trafford there were two problems of form to consider that related to Jos Buttler and Dom Bess. By the end there was only one. The purist argument about Buttler’s place has a certain logic. By his own admission he kept poorly and the drop and missed stumping of Shan Masood was highlighted by the fact the opener went on to make 156.

Dom Bess has found wickets hard to come by and his Somerset teammate Jack Leach could come into contention for the remaining two Tests.

Should a sparkling innings allow Buttler to retain the gloves? In a utopian world the answer may be “no”. In the real one it will be “yes”. This England side are hard enough to balance – especially in Stokes’ absence – without playing two men capable of keeping wicket. After Buttler’s innings on Saturday he has to play if only because it was so apparent how much Pakistan feared him when the chase was on; in which case he retains the gloves.

The situation is complicated for Ben Foakes and Jack Leach, the potential replacements for Buttler and Bess. Given that rotation did not apply to them earlier in this unusual Test summer, both would come into the side with no idea whether they are in charge of their games. Leach has not played a first-class match since November 2019 in New Zealand and has been beset by a series of health problems; Foakes’ last proper match was for Surrey last September.

England are unlikely to play two rusty players in their next Test team. Both would enter the fray with understandable reservations; it is unreasonable to expect them to be at their best.

It is much more likely and logical that Leach makes the team – at least a bowler has the leeway to make the odd mistake without severe repercussions and he may be able to work himself back in the groove, albeit during a Test. He should have played one game against West Indies, not because Bess was flagging, but to keep all options open. Moreover bowling against right-handers is a simpler operation for left-arm spinners in the modern game.

There will be rotation among the pacemen though their form in the last Test will be relevant. Chris Woakes has to play (not just because of his batting – he was arguably England’s best bowler at Old Trafford even if he only bowled 25 overs there). The other all-rounder, Stuart Broad, whose batting has catapulted him into the list of leading ICC all-rounders at number 10, three behind Woakes, will probably play even though it will be his fourth game in a row. The force is with him.

Mark Wood may well replace Jofra Archer and there is a good case for Jimmy Anderson to rest but not retire. He may have looked weary at the end and he was definitely grumpy when a slip catch was spilt; his figures may be modest but his bowling is still up to scratch. With Stokes unavailable Zak Crawley will return to the XI; so might Sam Curran but does Bess give way to Leach?