UN packed international summer starts on Wednesday with the first of two Tests against New Zealand, and from then on England face a brutal schedule across all three formats running through to the Twenty20 World Cup and the Ashes. It’s not just the sheer quantity of games or the quality of the opposition that makes this summer exciting: the ECB has shown in its squad selection that it is going to look after its three-format players, and what that means is opportunity for others.
Jofra Archer’s injury has already opened the door for Ollie Robinson and for Craig Overton, who last played for his country a couple of years ago. For the last couple of years Jimmy Anderson, Mark Wood, Archer and Stuart Broad have all been involved and there hasn’t been a lot of room for anyone else. But Wood’s workload has to be managed, as does Archer’s when he’s fit, and if you are one of those up-and-coming bowlers you now have a chance to shine. The way Olly Stone bowled in his couple of Tests in India over the winter, with control and pace in unfavourable conditions, suggests that he could really make a name for himself now if he gets a run in the team.
I love to see a journey to the Test team that has been a bit leftfield and Robinson’s has certainly been that – originally a spinner, he started at Kent, was sacked by Yorkshire and has finally blossomed at Sussex, where his record over the last couple of seasons has been extremely good. That journey means his character and his motivation have been tested, he has had to show strength and resilience, and that will hopefully make him a better player and a stronger person. Both he and Overton spent time in England’s biosecure bubble last summer without playing, which means they will be familiar with a lot of the people and the routines, and will hopefully need less time to settle in. If either of them slips into gear, the opportunity is there to earn a place in the squad for the rest of the summer and the Ashes tour.
With Ben Foakes ruled out after his dressing-room slip, James Bracey is in line for a debut as wicketkeeper-batsman. He’s been coming in at No3 for Gloucestershire but will possibly bat a bit lower down for England, and having also been in the bubble, and averaging 47.90 for his county this summer, there’s a nice window open for him to possibly push some of the other batters, as might Haseeb Hameed if he gets a game. It’s an exciting time, with lots of players playing their way into contention. The New Zealand series is not about the tried and trusted – we know what Joe Root has to offer, or Ben Stokes – it’s about seeing what a few others can offer, and who seizes the moment. Pressure for places is key in sport – we saw with Eoin Morgan’s limited-overs team the kind of impact it can have – and that’s now kicking in with the Test squad.
New Zealand come with a high-quality bowling unit. They are missing Trent Boult but Tim Southee is one of the best swing bowlers in the world, Neil Wagner can bowl long spells and is very effective with the short ball, and Kyle Jamieson is a very tall bowler who brings awkward bounce. That group has been here practising for a few weeks, and the big question is whether they can manage a Dukes ball. If they can do that they will be a real threat, and this young England team will have serious questions asked of them.
The Kiwis also have the experience of Ross Taylor and Kane Williamson, people who have been there, done that and worn the T-shirt, plus Tom Latham has played for Durham and Kent, so has experience of English conditions. They have struggled away in recent years – they have lost only one of 23 home Tests in the last five years, but have lost nine of 15 away – but I think this team is a real threat, and this two-match series will be high-quality preparation for what England still have to come, and also high-quality sport.
It will also, maybe most excitingly of all, have fans. Having been in the bubble last year, I know from experience that it can be a bit soulless at times. I remember watching Stokes smash a century against West Indies at Old Trafford, in almost complete silence. If that was a packed house it would have built atmosphere and put pressure on the batsman and the bowlers. The way the crowd noise ebbs and flows changes the game – even the silences build atmosphere. Lord’s will have a meaningful crowd and then 18,000 people at Edgbaston is going to be a gamechanger. This is going to be a busy summer of high-quality cricket, but more than anything I’m excited to hear the roar of that crowd.