England reinvention can wait as Rob Key presents Test squad filled with raw materials

England

It was a case of mindset over matter as England unveiled their first squad selection of the Brendon McCullum era. Many of the same notes, in a slightly different order, like the set-up for a Morecombe and Wise sketch, but hopefully without quite the same element of farce in the final analysis.

McCullum, currently at the IPL overseeing the final vestiges of Kolkata Knight Riders’ campaign, is due to link up with England’s 13-man squad for the first time late next week, where he can begin to lay down his vision for the Test team’s reboot. And to that end, there wasn’t really much to be gained from excess radicalism at this stage – instead, in naming a squad for the first two Tests only, there is perhaps still scope for the new coach to make a firmer mark before his fellow countrymen leave the stage.

For the time being, however, it was over to Rob Key – the director of cricket and de facto chairman of selectors – to talk through a squad containing eight of the men who were thumped by ten wickets in their last outing in Grenada in March, plus the two most controversial recent omissions and only two genuinely new faces in Matthew Potts and Harry Brook, county cricket’s stand-out performers of the season’s opening weeks.

And for all that Key is adamant that a new philosophy can unlock the potential of a team that is currently propping up the World Test Championship table with its lowest ICC ranking since 1995, this selection might have been designed to prove that there can be no quick fixes to England’s flagging fortunes.

In a summer that has brought about a glut of runs for batters up and down the country – most particularly for openers – England have opted for continuity at the top with Alex Lees, the highest run-getter in adversity in Grenada, once again partnering Zak Crawley, whose solitary fifty in eight county outings this summer is quite the anomaly given the riches elsewhere.

Both England incumbents, in fact, have been comprehensively out-performed by their partners at Durham and Kent respectively, Sean Dickson (four hundreds) and Ben Compton (three), while Sam Robson and Keaton Jennings are among the tried-and-tested candidates who will have to wait and see if there’s any hope of another opportunity.

Where things begin to get a bit more funky, however, is with the naming of Ollie Pope at No.3. It is a position he has never filled for his county Surrey, albeit he averages close to 100 in his home appearances at the Kia Oval, and it has echoes of his odd deployment in his debut series against India in 2018, when he was pushed up to No.4 despite, again, never having batted that high in his then-fledgling career.

Key, however, considers both Crawley and Pope among the cream of England’s coming crop of batters, and is adamant that they can thrive in a reconfigured Test environment that will trust them to trust the mindsets that have got them noticed in the first place.

“I get the feeling sometimes that people think the Brendon McCullum era of English cricket is going to be about people who run down the pitch from ball one and bat exactly like he did,” Key said. “It’s not at all actually. He’s pretty clear on his philosophy, he wants people whose default position is looking to score runs as a batsman, who can transfer pressure back onto the bowler when needed, but also have the courage and fortitude and temperament to be able to soak up pressure when that’s required.

“[McCullum and Ben Stokes] are two cricketers with the same philosophy, but they are not just go-out-there-and-play-shots merchants. Ben just wants selfless cricketers that don’t take a backward step. That’s pretty clear.

“We want bowlers who can look to take wickets and are prepared to change the plan to try and make sure they get each player in the opposition out, and fielders who chase the ball hard to the boundary at all times, and that’s sort of it really.

“That’s how we want to play winning cricket. That’s the philosophy we think will turn us into a winning Test match team. It’s not about having ten Virender Sehwags, although that might be quite a good thing if we did, it’s just no-one has that luxury.”

Never mind ten Sehwags, one Harry Brook might prove to be quite the asset to England in the long run – his astonishing haul of 758 runs at 151.60, with three centuries and a lowest score of 41, brooks no argument. Nor does the call-up of Matthew Potts, whose 35 wickets at 18.57 are 13 more than the next most prolific England-qualified quick, Craig Overton, whose retention is justified on that score, even if his brother Jamie – by all accounts bowling very quickly for Surrey – might have been the more imaginative pick.

Ultimately, however, this initial squad selection is an understandably odd mishmash of hunch, conservatism and solid reward for service rendered – be it long-term excellence in the recalls of James Anderson and Stuart Broad (whom Key, tellingly, seems prepared to bowl to a fitting standstill rather than manage into an interminable future) or short-term returns in the County Championship – the competition, after all, upon which England will still be relying for their raw materials while they seek to reinvent their wheels.

“It’s very important. Ollie Pope wasn’t in the side and he’s managed to get back into the squad on the back of his county form as much as anything else,” Key said. “The same with Harry Brook and Matt Potts. I know we’ve got injuries but had he not done that, [Potts] wouldn’t be in this set-up at all. County cricket this year has informed quite a few of our decisions, to be honest.

“There’s some seriously talented cricketers in this country. We just need to unlock them and get them playing to the best of their ability,” he added. “I’m betting on the fact that someone like Brendon McCullum, or Ben Stokes, and a clear vision for how we want to play is the way to do that. We want that to go through our system.”

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket

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