England recovered from an illness epidemic and a crushing defeat in the first Test at Centurion to thump South Africa 3-1 and retain the Basil D’Oliveira Trophy.
But there are still major selection decisions to be made for March’s tour of Sri Lanka as Joe Root’s side seek further World Test Championship points.
With England due to name their squad next week, we look at who may drop out and who could come in for the two-Test series on the subcontinent…
Who bats at No 3?
Joe Denly holds that position for now, though after averaging only 30 in South Africa – and only 30 in his Test career – the selectors could have pause for thought. The 33-year-old has not looked out of his depth at Test level and has only failed to reach double figures once in 26 innings, but he has yet to notch a century, with the top total among his six fifties the 94 he struck against Australia in the Ashes Test at The Oval. Denly’s struggle to score against Keshav Maharaj’s spin in South Africa will be a concern with the Sri Lankan pitches expected to favour the slow bowlers, if perhaps not as much as when England secured a 3-0 whitewash on the island in late 2018 when 100 of the 111 wickets to fall went to spinners.
Jonny Bairstow scored a hundred from the No 3 berth on that tour and is a real candidate to bat at first drop this time around, having worked on his technique feverishly since losing his spot for the pre-Christmas series in New Zealand. If out of the XI, Denly could retain his place in the squad as cover for openers Dom Sibley and Zak Crawley and the men in the middle order but may face pressure from Keaton Jennings, with the spin specialist touted as a potential call-up. Both of Jennings’ Test tons have come in Asia – on debut against India in Mumbai in 2016 and against Sri Lanka in Galle in November 2018 – with his average on the subcontinent (44.44 from five Tests) far superior to his numbers at home (17.72 from 10 games).
Who keeps wicket?
Denly’s form in South Africa looks decent compared to Buttler’s, with England’s wicketkeeper-batsman scoring only 115 runs in seven innings at 16.42 with a top score of 29. Buttler’s Test average since the start of 2019 is 23.32 with the 29-year-old showing only fleeting glimpses of his game-changing white-ball batting in Test whites. Ben Foakes, widely accepted as the purest gloveman in England, is likely to be picked for Sri Lanka, having been named man of the series in 2018 after scoring a century on debut, a fifty a game later and finishing as the top run-scorer on either side.
Yet, Buttler was England’s second-highest run-scorer, managing only 27 runs fewer than Foakes’ 277 and showing an ability to sweep and play straight on dusty surfaces. Buttler may not have cracked Test cricket just yet and there will be a breaking point but England will be reluctant to lose, as Sky Sports’ Rob Key called him recently, ‘a special player’, one who impressed when brought back into the Test team in 2018 by national selector Ed Smith and one who, looking forward, could be extremely dangerous in the next Ashes series in Australia. The chances are both Buttler and Foakes are picked with the decision as to who starts perhaps coming down to who fares best with the bat in the warm-up games.
Who joins Bess in the spin department?
“Who joins Bess?” would have seemed a bizarre question a month ago with the Somerset off-spinner not even selected in the initial squad to tour South Africa. Yet, illness to his county colleague Jack Leach – the man who frequently keeps him out of the Taunton team’s County Championship XI – saw him called up and he then played in Cape Town and Port Elizabeth after leapfrogging leg-spinner Matt Parkinson in the pecking order. An excellent holding role at Newlands and then a maiden five-wicket haul at St George’s Park have rubberstamped his spot and if Leach is able to overcome the bouts of illness that have wrecked his winter, he will surely go, too, having bagged 18 wickets in Sri Lanka last time, the same number as Moeen Ali.
Moeen took a break from Tests after being dropped during The Ashes and losing his red-ball contract but Alec Stewart, speaking on The Cricket Debate, said England should be “doing everything possible” to lure him back, saying the 32-year-old’s experience, which includes 181 Test wickets and over 2,700 Test runs, will be key. England coach Chris Silverwood is planning talks with Moeen this week to see if he is up for a return but the all-rounder may not wish to renege on his Pakistan Super League contract, meaning Liam Dawson – the slow left-armer who played the last of his three Tests in 2017, could come into the reckoning – with Adil Rashid – who claimed 12 wickets in Sri Lanka 16 months ago – out of the frame.
Which seamers make the trip?
Only seven wickets were taken by England seamers in the 2018 series against Sri Lanka – five for Ben Stokes and one apiece for Sam Curran and James Anderson – so it could be an opportunity to rest some of the pacemen ahead of a summer Test programme that features three-match series against Pakistan and West Indies. Anderson and Jofra Archer, nursing a broken rib and a troublesome right elbow respectively, could be left at home, along with 33-year-old Stuart Broad, leaving all-rounders Stokes, Curran and Chris Woakes to carry the seam-bowling burden, which may not be that fierce if there is appreciable spin with Root, and possibly even Denly, able to support the frontline spinners.