England captain Joe Root is ready to make ruthless decisions for the first Test in the West Indies as he looks for the right balance in Barbados.
The tourists have tough calls to make over their bowling attack, with a drier than expected pitch at the Kensington Oval and a swing-friendly Dukes ball offering conflicting hints.
If England trust their ability to exploit the ball, which has stayed hard for longer than expected since landing on the island, they could choose four seamers and Moeen Ali as a solitary spinner.
If, on the other hand, they suspect the surface will turn it could mean a head-to-head between senior man Stuart Broad and rising star Sam Curran.
Either way Root can expect some difficult conversations. Broad boasts the small matter of 433 Test scalps, Curran has begun his career with a seven-match winning streak and tweakers Jack Leach and Adil Rashid excelled in the 3-0 whitewash of Sri Lanka before Christmas.
“The most important thing is that they’re all ready to go and whatever decision we make none of them are going to let us down,” he said.
“Whoever misses out is going to be very unfortunate, but I am sure they’ll be ready for the second one if they’re not required here.
“It’s hard to work out what the pitch is going to be like so it’s about keeping an open mind, seeing how it is when we turn up (today) and probably making quite a late decision on the team. We’ll just have to make a big call in the morning.”
Rather than shrink from that verdict, Root is positively relishing it. Having stood down Broad from the victories in Galle and Pallekelle to make room for his trio of spinners with conspicuous success he is eager to make horses-for-courses selections the new norm.
“If we’re in a position to leave someone of Stuart’s stature out it’s not because of lack of form or lack of ability or because his career is coming to an end,” he explained.
“Far from it. He’s actually looking like he’s improving all the time. If anything it shows we’re going to balance the team up to suit conditions and hopefully become more consistent away from home because we’re reading conditions and surfaces.
“It’s about collectively doing something special together. The sooner everyone can be on board with that and understand that the better.”
With a long spell of white-ball cricket leading up to the centre-piece of a home World Cup this summer, this three-match series in the Caribbean also represents a last real chance for players to nail down places for this year’s Ashes. For the likes of Keaton Jennings and Rory Burns, neither of whom play in the limited-overs side, the benefits of a productive trip could go a long way to solidifying their positions at the top of the order.
Root has no intention of letting anyone’s focus drift from the matter at hand, though, having been on the wrong end of memorable wins by the West Indies in Barbados in 2015 and Headingley two years later as captain.
“Their job and their responsibility is not to worry about the Ashes, their job is to perform well for three Test matches here,” he said.
“If they look after that I’m sure that’ll look after Ashes cricket and whatever comes down the line. I don’t want the guys to be playing for stuff that’s going to be happening in six months’ time.
“We have to look after here and now, and make sure we are very aware that these are going to be three hard Test matches where we’re going to have to be consistent.”
Root was one of four Englishmen named in the International Cricket Council’s one-day team of the year yesterday, joining Jonny Bairstow, Jos Buttler and Ben Stokes, but his side drew a blank in the composite Test XI despite a strong 2018.
“For me as captain it is very pleasing because we won eight out of nine Test matches, we’ve played well as a group and it shows that we are not reliant on one or two players,” was Root’s positive assessment of the snub.
Root’s West Indies counterpart Jason Holder has laughed off Geoffrey Boycott’s withering assessment of his side as a predictable part of England’s tour.
Yorkshireman and former England captain Boycott has branded Holder’s squad “very ordinary, average cricketers”.
Holder, though, was in no mood to engage with the 78-year-old as he finalised preparations for the first Test in Bridgetown.
“I’ve not seen or heard the comments by Boycott but it’s normal, we expect this sort of thing. It gets us going,” said Holder.”