11 Key Questions England Must Answer Before Their Next Test Match
England do not play another Test now until June following their recent 5-0 Ashes series whitewash at the hands of Australia, enough time for all those involved at the very top of the game in this country to start focussing and planning on the future in what promises to be a long and fairly rocky road ahead for all involved.
Key stakeholders, especially the new managing director of England cricket Paul Downton, England team director Andy Flower and captain Alastair Cook will all, after a suitable period for reflection, need to sit down and sift through the wreckage of the events of the past two months Down Under.
And high on that trio’s list of priorities ahead of the first Test next summer against Sri Lanka at Lord’s on June 12 will be these 11 key questions…
1: Keep Pietersen in the Team?
According to various media reports over the past few days, Flower will only continue on in his current position if his bosses at the England and Wales Cricket Board back him by bringing about a premature end to Kevin Pietersen’s international career.
Flower feels Pietersen has been setting a bad example to England’s younger players during the tour of Australia, especially in the manner of his dismissals and the way in which he treats warm-up matches. It is believe he does not now feel he can mould a new team in his own image with the star batsman still involved in the current setup.
As a result, this is the most pressing and urgent issue that needs to be resolved before England play their next Test match in June, otherwise it will simply remain as the elephant in the room, like a boil waiting to be lanced.
What they probably should do: Broker high-level peace talks involving Downton, Flower and KP to find an agreeable and amicable solution.
What they probably will do: Force the South Africa-born batsmen to bring down the curtain on his glittering career for his adopted country.
2: Retain Cook as Captain?
Any skipper that presides over a 5-0 series whitewash, particularly against their fiercest enemy, would find himself under the sort of pressure that Cook is experiencing now.
And when you add in the 29-year-old’s glaring limitations in the field and total inability to inspire his team-mates, then you can understand the current questioning of his role.
What they probably should do: Hand the poisoned chalice to the only other player currently guaranteed his place in the team, Stuart Broad, if only to free up Cook to do what he does best, score mountains of runs for England at the top of the order.
What they probably will do: Keep him in the position, especially considering Cook’s outstanding record as skipper prior to this winter’s tour of Australia.
3: Who Should Be England’s Wicketkeeper Going Forward?
A question no one would have even considered asking following England’s successful retention of the urn last summer, however, now one crucial to the whole dynamic of the team.
Vice-captain Matt Prior was axed for the final two Tests after the Ashes were lost, to be replaced by back-up stumper Jonny Bairstow, who then also failed to convince, especially with the bat.
However, the man behind the stumps plays such a key role in the whole setup of a team that this is an issue Flower and Co. dare not get wrong.
What they probably should do: Recall the Sussex all-rounder, with it being a huge mistake in the first place to drop Prior, someone who just a few short months ago in New Zealand was rightly considered to be the best player in his position in the world.
What they probably will do: Give Prior a chance to re-establish his England career against Sri Lanka having had six months out of the international glare.
4: Who Is Graeme Swann’s Heir Apparent?
England have tried two spin bowlers in the two Tests since Swann surprisingly retired from the game last month, Monty Panesar at the Melbourne Cricket Ground and Scott Borthwick at the Sydney Cricket Ground.
But now Flower and Cook must decide just who Swann’s long-term successor will be as they look ahead to the 2015 Ashes series in England, and then give that tweaker the support and games he needs to settle into the team ahead of that showdown.
What they probably should do: Go with the experience, class and wickets that Panesar provides, especially as aged just 31, the left-arm spinner still has so much left to offer England.
What they probably will do: Jettison Panesar for being too shy and reticent and instead gamble by putting all their eggs in the Durham leg spinner’s basket, someone who Swann incidentally backed to replace him in the England team.
5: Will Jonathan Trott Ever Play for England Again?
Sadly for everyone involved with the England team, and the player himself, their dependable No. 3 batsman was forced to return home prematurely from the recent Ashes tour suffering from a long-standing stress-related condition.
And that begs the question whether Trott will ever be able to resume his international career again and if so, when, with the 32-year-old having been such a key component in everything that the team has managed to achieve these past five years.
What they probably should do: Realistically, without being able to tour again, Trott’s international career is now effectively over.
What they probably will do: Move on without the Warwickshire batsman.
6: Who Should Be Cook’s Opening Partner Going Forward?
Since Andrew Strauss retired in the summer of 2012, England have used Nick Compton, Joe Root and now Michael Carberry as a partner for Cook at the top of the order, all with varying degrees of success.
But with this being such a key position in the whole makeup of the team’s lineup, this is a selection that Flower needs to get right heading into the summer as England cannot afford to still be searching for the right opener this time next year approaching the return Ashes contest.
What they probably should do: Admit they made a mistake and recall Compton to reform what was a comparatively successful partnership alongside Cook at the top of the order, with England having failed to register 400 in any innings innings since the Somerset man was dropped last July.
What they probably will do: Much will depend on which openers put their hands up in the early-season County Championship matches next summer, but you get the feeling Carberry has now had his chance and Flower will look to another young debutant instead.
7: Who Is the Next Young Batsman to Make His Mark?
Ever since the retirement of Paul Collingwood at the end of the 2010-11 Ashes series, England have tried a whole host of up-and-coming batsmen to take over at No. 6 from the Durham all-rounder, but with little success.
However, despite Ben Stokes’ timely emergence in Australia this winter, there will still be another place up for grabs next summer if, as expected, Pietersen is forced to call it a day, but identifying who that next cab off the rank will be is anyone’s guess.
Either way, though, Flower and his selectors need to somehow come up with another inspired Trott-like call-up, as they did in the summer of 2009, to help give England’s batting lineup some much-needed dynamism and energy.
What they probably should do: Give Gary Ballance an extended run in the side at No. 5, meaning all six Tests next summer against Sri Lanka and India in which to bed the 24-year-old in.
What they probably will do: There is every chance that the Yorkshireman will be handed the chance to establish himself in the England side, starting against Sri Lanka at Lord’s in June.
8: What to Do with Steven Finn?
England found themselves in the ridiculous situation this winter of being unable to pick the leader of their one-day international (ODI) bowling attack in any of the five Tests against Australia.
That was due to the continued remedial work that Finn has been undergoing on his action alongside bowling coach David Saker to ensure the lanky paceman stops hitting the stumps in his delivery stride.
However, one of Flower and Cook’s top priorities must surely now be to get the 24-year-old back bowling to somewhere near his peak again, and quickly too, as England just cannot afford to see yet another fast-bowling talent simply go to waste.
What they probably should do: Much may depend on how Finn bowls in the upcoming five-match ODI series with Australia, but if the fast bowler can even land it on the strip, then he should immediately be recalled for the first Test with Sri Lanka next summer.
What they probably will do: Carry on working with him behind the scenes until they are absolutely sure he has ironed out all his issues, which may mean him missing the two-Test series with Sri Lanka, before then being in contention for a recall against India later in the summer.
9: What Number Should Ian Bell Bat in the Order?
One debate that continued to rage for the entire Ashes series in Australia following the shock early departure of Trott was whether Bell should bat at No. 3 or his usual No. 5 position in the England lineup.
In the end, the Warwickshire player tried both, although the issue is sure to rear its head again before England return to Test match action next summer, and Flower needs to decide once and for all which is the best for the team.
What they probably should do: With Trott and Pietersen possibly both missing from England’s batting lineup going into the opening Test of next summer against Sri Lanka, Bell should now be handed the key responsibility of taking over KP’s No. 4 role in the team instead, in between Root at No. 3 and Ballance at No. 5.
What they probably will do: Exactly that, especially as the No. 4 role will also most likely be sandwiching two younger batsmen either side, and so it now takes on even more importance and responsibility.
10: What Can Be Done with England’s Recent Continued Pedestrian Pace of Batting?
It will not have escaped anyone’s attention that over the course of the past 10 Test matches against Australia, England’s batsmen, especially the top order, have found it desperately hard to score runs at anything like their previous rates, or those managed by their opponents either.
And this has had disastrous consequences, with Cook’s men often finding themselves going nowhere in key phases of Tests, only to then have their tail blown away by the extreme pace of Mitchell Johnson, with the end result being a plethora of paltry first-innings totals for their overworked bowlers to then try and defend.
What they probably should do: Some of the so-called more experienced top-order batsmen should take a leaf out of new boy Stokes’ book and start taking the game to the opposition more by pressuring their bowlers.
What they probably will do: Flower is likely to carry on ordering the production of slow, low surfaces at home to suit the England bowling attack, but which also then hinders the batsmen’s ability to score runs at pace.
11: How Much Longer Can England Persist with James Anderson?
Following his man-of-the-match 10-wicket haul against Australia at Trent Bridge in the opening Ashes Test of last summer, Anderson has appeared to have lost much of his penetration and nip, especially with the crucial new ball.
Initially, it was simply blamed on the exertions of that one-man show in Nottingham, but by the end of the return series Down Under, the evidence was there for all to see.
Anderson, who took 14 wickets at 43 in five Tests this winter, will be 32 in July, so Flower now needs to decide whether the seamer’s time at the very top is over, or does he still have a few more gallons left in the tank?
What they probably should do: Stick with the Lancastrian for this summer’s two-Test series to ascertain whether Anderson has simply been suffering from a temporary loss of form that will return as soon as he gets the Duke ball back in his hands in more favourable English conditions.
After all, no other Englishman has taken more than Anderson's current total of 606 international wickets.
What they probably will do: Trust the experienced swing bowler to refind his mojo, before Anderson calls it quits after winning his 100th cap in the 2015 Ashes series in England.