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Jos Buttler in possession as England prepare to get back on the field

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Jos Buttler is set to retain his place in England’s Test team for the start of the series against West Indies.

While Buttler has endured a lean run of form with the bat in recent Tests – he has averaged 23.32 in 13 Tests since the start of 2019 and 17.55 in five Tests since the end of the last English season – he retains the faith of the team management and is poised to keep the gloves ahead of competition from Jonny Bairstow and Ben Foakes.

Underlining that faith, Buttler has been confirmed as one of the team captains in England’s warm-up match, starting on Wednesday, and as England’s vice-captain in the first Test against West Indies next week. England’s regular Test vice-captain, Ben Stokes, has been promoted to the captaincy in the absence of Joe Root, on paternity leave, and Buttler is taking on Stokes’ previous role. England hope to have Root back for the second Test.

The three-day warm-up match will feature 27 players – there are 14 on Buttler’s side and 13 on Stokes’ – so will not have first-class status. The only three players from the 30-man training squad not taking part are Amar Virdi, Jamie Overton and Root. All three are understood to be fit, but Root is leaving the squad on Wednesday to attend the birth of his second child and the team management have decided that, in order for key players to gain the match practice required, there is no room for the other two. The match will be live-streamed from static cameras at each end of the ground on the ECB’s website

Although England’s head coach, Chris Silverwood, was giving little away when he spoke to the media on Tuesday afternoon, he did confirm Buttler’s inclusion and hinted that, in general, those players “in possession” of places at the end of the South Africa tour might be in favourable positions. With the Sri Lanka tour subsequently postponed and the English domestic season curtailed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, none of the players involved have played since the South Africa tour finished.

“I wouldn’t say selection is a blank page,” Silverwood said. “You know the people who are the mainstay, the engine room of the team. It is difficult to go too far away straight away from where we finished off.

“Jos will be vice-captain and he is in possession [of the gloves] at the moment. No, you don’t [have to be a genius] to work that out.”

That would appear to represent bad news for Foakes and Bairstow. While it remains possible England could recall Bairstow as a specialist batting replacement for Root – he is probably competing with Dan Lawrence and Joe Denly for the position – his preference for batting in the middle order may count against him.

Equally, it is possible England could play Buttler as a specialist batsman and recall Foakes. Certainly Buttler’s Test record as a specialist batsman – 35.68 in 20 Tests – is significantly better than his record as an all-rounder – he averages 27.43 in 21 Tests when he has kept – but all the evidence suggests England are inclined to make few changes.

If possession really is a key factor in this selection, it would appear to be good news for Denly and Dom Bess, too. But Denly could be squeezed by the return of Rory Burns at the top of the order, while Bess is fighting off competition from both Moeen Ali and Jack Leach as spinner. Moeen, with five Test centuries behind him, might have an especially strong claim for a recall in a side lacking Root.

The beneficiary of Root’s absence could well be Lawrence. While Denly’s durability has been admirable, his failure to register a century in his 14 Tests and his age (he’s 34) may both count against him. Lawrence impressed on the Lions tour to Australia – he made 190 in the warm-up match and 125 in the unofficial ‘Test’ – and, aged 22, is seen as a growing force. With one eye on a return to Australia in 18 months, this could be the time to promote him. Zak Crawley, who seemed to grow in stature with each appearance in South Africa, looks set to retain the No. 3 spot behind Burns and Dom Sibley.

ALSO READ: Ben Stokes to captain as Joe Root misses first Test for birth

“Dan has settled in very well,” Silverwood said. “He’s a confident guy. He has come in, been himself and played well. He’s certainly one of them that has put his best foot forward.”

The other area England are facing competition for places is in their seam bowling. The enforced break has given the bowlers an almost unique opportunity to rest and work on their strength and conditioning. The result is that, right now, they are all deemed fit.

“The only thing the lockdown has done is delivered me a load of fit fast bowlers,” Silverwood said. “All the guys coming back have had a good break. They are refreshed and they’re firing. They are very, very motivated to crack on. The one thing I have been impressed with is the shape that everyone has come back in.”

Crucially, the three quickest bowlers of those involved in this warm-up match – Mark Wood, Jofra Archer and Olly Stone – are all available, giving the selectors (and for this first Test, Stokes should be considered a selector) an intriguing dilemma. Wood, at his best, is hard to omit and claimed nine wickets in England’s most recent Test. But similar might be said about Archer, James Anderson and Stuart Broad. Tough choices loom.

Team Stokes: Dominic Sibley, Keaton Jennings, Zak Crawley, Jonathan Bairstow, Ben Stokes (c), Ben Foakes, Moeen Ali, Lewis Gregory, Craig Overton, Jack Leach, Olly Stone, James Anderson, Saqib Mahmood.

Team Buttler: Rory Burns, James Bracey, Joe Denly, Dan Lawrence, Ollie Pope, Jos Buttler (c), Sam Curran, Chris Woakes, Dominic Bess, Mark Wood, Jofra Archer, Stuart Broad, Matthew Parkinson, Ollie Robinson.



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The kings of the Dukes ball and how it wasn’t all bad for spin

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The Sheffield Shield season of two halves is over, at least for now. Cricket Australia has announced the Kookaburra ball would be used throughout the competition rather than the Dukes coming into play for latter part of the tournament after the Big Bash.

The Dukes has been in use since 2016-17, with the primary aim of giving Australian players more practice against the type of ball (although a modified version) that had often troubled them for a decade in England. Last year, the Ashes was retained in England for the first time since 2001 so, in that sense, the plan had come together although it hadn’t always enjoyed rave reviews on the domestic circuit.

But who fared best when it was in play? We take a look at some of the numbers from the last four years of the Shield.

In the runs

Victoria opener Marcus Harris, who played the last three Tests of the Ashes, is the top run-scorer against the Dukes ball. The form that earned Matthew Wade a recall for that tour is highlighted by his numbers – including a Dukes average of 59.38 – while Marnus Labuschagne’s far more mundane numbers highlight the speed of his development over the last 12 months where he’s scored runs against anything. New South Wales’ Daniel Hughes is again highlighted as one of the most consistent players in the Shield while Nic Maddinson‘s prolific form in the last two seasons is reflected.

In terms of the difference between the top 15 run-scorers against the Dukes and their Kookaburra record, Ed Cowan, who retired in 2018, has the biggest swing and could lay claim to being the king of Dukes batting. Matt Renshaw, who has slipped well down the Test pecking order, also has an outstanding return as does Hilton Cartwright despite the last two seasons being much more of a struggle.

Overall, the batting average against the Dukes was 27.44 compared to 30.05 against the Kookaburra.

In the wickets

The bowling list is unsurprisingly dominated by the seamers, although that is likely more a reflection of overall Sheffield Shield cricket over recent years than specifically the ball (more on that in a moment). The returns reinforce why Michael Neser and Peter Siddle were part of the Ashes squad and plenty of others in the table were in the debate ahead of that tour. James Pattinson‘s Dukes average of 14.92 is eye-catching.

Of those in the top 15 wicket-takers with the Dukes, Nick Winter, the left-armer from South Australia, has the biggest difference in the average in favour of that ball compared to the Kookaburra closely followed by Western Australia’s David Moody. The one spinner to make the list, Victoria’s left-armer Jon Holland, has similar figures with both.

In a spin

It’s the spin numbers overall that are interesting to look at, given the talk of the health of spin bowling (beyond Nathan Lyon) in Australian first-class cricket. Bringing spin more into the game was mentioned in the Cricket Australia release about moving back to Kookaburra all season.

In fact, over the last four seasons, spin has taken wickets at five runs fewer with the Dukes than the Kookaburra. And, if you compare it to the three seasons prior to when the different types of balls were used, the Dukes average is three runs better off with spin averaging 38.36 from 2013-14 to 2015-16. However, what is very noticeable is the reducing number of overs bowled by spinners in those four seasons even taking into account last season was truncated by four games due to Covid-19.

There are spinners, not least Shane Warne, who have said how the Dukes is a better ball for the art. It would appear more needs to change in Australian domestic cricket than just the ball to revive the fortune of spinners.



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Recent Match Report – Team Buttler vs Team Stokes Warm Up 2020

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Team Stokes 233 (Crawley 43, Robinson 2-7) lead Team Buttler 287 for 5 dec by 54 runs

England allrounder Sam Curran is awaiting the results of a Covid-19 test after being placed in self-isolation at the Ageas Bowl, casting a shadow over the second day of the intra-squad clash.

On the pitch, the battle for bowling places intensified as Jos Buttler’s team, who declared on their day one score of 287 for 5, dismissed Ben Stokes’ side for 233 at stumps.

Buttler’s hand was strengthened by Jofra Archer and Mark Wood‘s first-ever appearance together in red-ball cricket and the pair offered a promising glimpse of what they might be capable of in tandem.

Injury has kept the country’s quickest bowlers apart since both played key roles in England’s World Cup victory last year, but midway through the morning session they teamed up for a promising eight-over spell that cost just seven runs and yielded the wicket of opener Dom Sibley for 12.

Archer banked the scalp, caught behind flicking the ball down leg-side, but the pair hunted together to unsettle Sibley with pacey short-pitched bowling. Wood might just as easily have been the one celebrating moments earlier, forcing Sibley to fend awkwardly to Ollie Pope, who squandered the chance at short leg.

Wood returned in the afternoon session to take Jonny Bairstow’s outside edge with the first ball of his second spell and finished with spotless figures of 1 for 14 from 11 overs, while Archer returned 2 for 37 after adding Ben Foakes for 38. He received treatment for sore feet late on, understood to be a result of wearing new bowling boots, and was replaced by Surrey’s Amar Virdi – the 29th player involved in the match.

Sussex seamer Ollie Robinson also offered a reminder of his skills, bowling with precision as he accounted for Moeen Ali and Lewis Gregory in a double-wicket maiden.

Stuart Broad could find himself vulnerable to the growing competition, with the fetching white bandana he wore over his lockdown hair more eye-catching than his figures of 0 for 42.

Moeen’s dismissal, lbw for 5, followed a peripheral role with the ball on Wednesday and his hopes of a first Test appearance in a year appear to be receding. Instead, Dom Bess is well placed to hold his place in the side. He bowled more tightly than either Moeen or Jack Leach managed on Wednesday and took a key wicket when he had Keaton Jennings caught at slip before lunch.

Zak Crawley top-scored with 43, a positive innings strewn with neat drives, before he nicked Chris Woakes – yet another able seamer vying for attention. Stokes made his way to 41, and doled out Bess’ only real punishment when he launched him for six and four in the same over, before he was stumped charging Matt Parkinson.



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Dom Bess leads as spinners turn up in force for England warm-up

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It is hard to remember an occasion when England have gone into their first Test of the home summer with five different spinners all pitching a case for inclusion in the side, but these are unprecedented times.

England’s spin cadre have worked closely with Richard Dawson in the nets over the past week, and all have had the opportunity to bowl in this week’s intra-squad warm-up match.

Amar Virdi looks the least likely to play at the Ageas Bowl next week, having been parachuted into Team Buttler at the last minute when Sam Curran went down with a suspected diarrhoea and vomiting bug, while Matt Parkinson‘s relative inexperience may count against him, despite him luring Ben Stokes into a false shot on the stroke of tea on Thursday to have him stumped.

That leaves Moeen Ali, Dom Bess and Jack Leach: all three of them fingerspinners, with similar batting returns in recent years despite Moeen’s greater pedigree. All three have strong claims to the role, but it appeared instructive that it took 68 overs for Moeen to be brought into the attack on the first afternoon. When he did come on, newcomer Dan Lawrence found it easy to knock him about, and a 27-ball 5 on the second day did little to further his case.

Seemingly, then, England have a choice next week between Leach and Bess, the Somerset team-mates: the former was first-choice going into the winter before his various illnesses, while the latter took his unlikely opportunity with both hands in South Africa.

In this warm-up match, it has been Bess who has impressed more. Leach went wicketless across 15 first-innings overs while Bess took two in his 20 on Thursday; Leach also conceded 3.8 runs per over compared to Bess’ 3.0, and bowled one maiden compared to Bess’ six.

But the make-up of the West Indies batting line-up poses an interesting conundrum, given that there are 13 right-handers and only two left-handers in their 15-man squad. One of those lefties, Raymon Reifer, looks unlikely to play the first Test, while John Campbell is an opening batsman, whom England will hope to dismiss before the spinners come on.

It may be a simplification to look at fingerspinners only through the lens of whether they turn the ball into or away from a batsman, but raw statistics help illustrate the point. Across the last five English Test summers, offspinners average significantly more bowling to right-handers (37.58) than left (28.38), while the disparity is only slightly smaller among slow left-armers (36.42 to left-handers, 30.87 to right-handers).

What’s more, the players in West Indies’ middle order that a spinner may well be relied upon to dismiss have substantially better records against offspinners than slow left-armers, in particular the engine room of Jason Holder, Shai Hope and Shane Dowrich.

Bess played the issue down in his close-of-play press conference on Thursday evening, saying that he was comfortable bowling to whoever he needed to. He cited Moeen’s five-wicket haul at the Ageas Bowl against India in 2018 as evidence that it would not be a major issue – though with left-armer Curran self-isolating, it seems unlikely that there will be as many footholes created outside the right-handers’ off stump this time around.

“It’s funny, you talk about right-handers and left-handers, but a good offspinner or a good spinner is going to take wickets no matter what,” Bess said. “You’ve got to be threatening on the inside or the outside edge.

“I know a couple of years ago at Hampshire, there were big footholes and Mo took a five-for down here with footholes to the right-handers, and I don’t see any difference. If you’re bowling well, you’ve got footholes there, you’re going to be challenging to a right-hander, let alone a left-hander. West Indies have obviously only got one leftie – I wouldn’t mind a couple more lefties, but I’m very happy bowling at right-handers as well.”

While Joe Denly, Ollie Pope and Lawrence had managed to milk Leach easily enough on the first day, Bess proved effective against right-handers on the second, tieing down Zak Crawley (who scored 9 off 17 balls against him) and Ben Foakes (8 off 32) in particular. In fact, most of the damage to his figures was done by left-handers in the shape of Stokes and his rival Leach, both of whom hit him for a pair of boundaries.

“It was a really good challenge today, bowling against Stokesy,” Bess said. “I thought I genuinely did him on one of them, and he just somehow on the up hit it over extra cover for six. I was just thinking: this is why he’s probably one of the best in the world – [he was] absolutely nowhere near it and he still middled it for six.

“After such a long time off and doing so much this winter on it, I was a little bit nervous coming back into it. So I really wanted to make sure I nailed down those fundamentals and actually put myself in the best situation. But I’m really happy with how it’s coming out at the moment.”

ALSO READ: Warwickshire sizing up move for Bess

And regardless who England choose, it demonstrates a level of spin depth that has not been seen for several years that there is even a debate around the spot. “It would be quite an achievement [to be selected],” Bess said, “so with that it brings a lot of responsibility to make sure that actually I’m still bowling the best I can. I want to push for that spot and make it my own. That’s normal, because if you’re in our position, you want to be making that first XI, and we’ve got amazing competition.”

To add one final flavour to the situation, counties have begun to declare their interest in Bess in a development that could end the impasse that has come about at Somerset, where Leach is the first-choice spinner.

But Bess insisted that there was “no spitefulness or anything like that” among the spin group. “We help each other, we’re looking to improve each other,” he said. “It’s really nice to see Mo again and learn off him. We’ve got Parky as well who I’m really close with, Leachy I’m really close with, [and] Virds I’ve been on a lot of tours with. For that whole group, it’s great for us to intertwine with each other, chat about spin, and be back with a group of lads playing cricket.”



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