It’s just over a week until Test cricket resumes for England’s Ashes heroes with the 1st Test at Cardiff against Sri Lanka. With Paul Collingwood having retired from the long form of the game, at least one place in the XI is up for grabs.
Most of the likely contenders face what is shaping up to be a final audition in the Lions match against the tourists, which starts on Thursday at Derby.
Here’s how the RS sees the runners and riders:
Eoin Morgan – next cab off the rank, long-term favourite
When Collingwood announced his Test retirement during the SCG Test, it was widely assumed that Morgan was first in line to replace him. The Irishman had filled in for Collingwood and then Ian Bell in six Tests against Bangladesh and Pakistan last summer and scored an impressive maiden Test hundred against the latter at Trent Bridge (even if he struggled in the three subsequent Tests). But whilst Morgan has been struggling for Kolkata in the IPL, his challengers have been coming up fast on the rails, meaning his outing this week for the Lions will be crucial to his chances.
Verdict – expect this early front-runner to be pipped at the post
Ravi Bopara – the show pony with more than one trick
Other than Morgan, is the only contender to have played at the highest level. Three hundreds in successive tests against the West Indies in 2009 had suggested a long and fruitful Test career, before the Ashes series that followed showed up Bopara’s shortcomings as a Test number three. After turning down the IPL dollars in favour of trying to impress in the County Championship, Bopara has scored a hundred in each of his last two games. He also has 119 overs of brisk medium pace under his belt giving Bopara a potential deciding second string to his bow.
Verdict – is neck and neck with the favourite coming up to the last and looks to be a fast finisher
James Hildreth – Chief Lion
The man once described by his former county captain Justin Langer as “an extraordinary talent” delivered in a big way last summer with 1440 Championship runs and seven centuries. He continued to impress over the winter for the Lions and took over the captaincy from Andrew Gale. Unfortunately, looks to have picked an inopportune time to have a dip in form - eight championship innings this summer have yielded only 195 runs.
Verdict – Had been really challenging but is now fading fast
James Taylor – the long term prospect
The diminutive 21 year old Leicestershire batsman may prove to be the strongest contender of all in the long-run, but is likely to have to bide his time on this occasion. Has a sound technique, as well as real guts and heart too if his recent battling display against a fiery Surrey attack on a lively Oval pitch is anything to go by.
Verdict – a thoroughbred in the making, but will not make the winner’s enclosure this time
Samit Patel – the top weight
A late entrant into the race after struggling with fitness issues over the winter, Patel has started the season well with 365 runs at 46 and 13 wickets at 32. Outbowled Graeme Swann at Hove last week and most importantly seems to have taken heed of what was probably his final warning from the England hierarchy. A strong showing for the Lions this week - on and off the pitch - could bode well for a recall to ODI colours at least.
Verdict – may lack the staying power required for the longer races
Ben Stokes – the rank outsider
Still a teenager (just), Stokes has continued to impress for Durham and already has two Championship hundreds to his name this season and averages 48. Like Bopara, he bowls brisk medium pace and took six for 68 in the first game of the season against Hampshire. But he is yet to add to that tally and has proved expensive at times. At the moment, Stokes is a batsman that bowls rather than a genuine all-rounder and like Patel, is probably a better bet for the ODI squad.
Verdict – don’t put your money on this long shot - especially as he is the only contender not in the Lions squad
Of course, England may decide not to go with six batsmen against what on paper at least looks an inexperienced and weak Sri Lankan bowling attack. In which case, Matt Prior would bat at six. But with India coming up afterwards, the selectors will probably want to bed in the new man, so it will be a huge surprise if one of our six contenders does not start in Cardiff.
Whilst we expect that man to be Bopara, the Reverse Sweep would actually opt for Taylor despite the former's usefulness as a fifth bowler. The RS has been impressed by Taylor every time we've seen him and in our view he will probably play 100 Tests.
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