With England’s Test winter ending in disappointing but enthralling fashion, Ben Stokes and Brendon McCullum now turn their attention to the summer, which is punctuated by the Ashes in June and July.
After winning the first Test in New Zealand in a convincing manner, England’s run of six straight victories was ended in Wellington as a Neil Wagner-inspired Black Caps secured a dramatic one-run victory on the last day.
England’s red-ball side next play in June, when they face Ireland in a one-off home Test, followed the small matter of the Ashes, with the first Test starting on Friday June 16 at Edgbaston, live on Sky Sports Cricket and Main Event.
England Men’s 2023 home fixtures
June 1-4 v Ireland, Lord’s
June 16-20 first Ashes Test v Australia, Edgbaston
June 28 – July 2 second Ashes Test v Australia, Lord’s
July 16-20 third Ashes Test v Australia, Headingley
July 19-23 fourth Ashes Test v Australia, Old Trafford
July 27-31 fifth Ashes Test v Australia, The Oval
Since Stokes and McCullum took the reins, England have an 83 per cent win record, losing just twice, against South Africa in the summer and New Zealand on Tuesday.
Australia have dominated the Ashes in recent years and the last time England faced Australia in the Ashes, Joe Root led the side to a disappointing and limp 4-0 away defeat.
That England side looked timid, tactically-bereft, and appeared beaten before a ball was bowled. But under Stokes, they are tigerish, tactically-revolutionary and look capable of beating any side in the world.
The Ashes this year could be one of the most exciting and closest in years but England have plenty to consider before the first ball is bowled in June.
Foakes to drop out for Bairstow?
There were several unknowns going into the winter for England. Despite only losing one Test, there were questions over how ‘Bazball’ could translate to away conditions.
Those questions were answered emphatically, with a series whitewash in Pakistan. One of the stars of the winter was Harry Brook, who came in during the final South Africa Test after Jonny Bairstow suffered a “freak” injury on the golf course.
Brook hasn’t looked back since and announced himself as a contender for England’s next great Test batsman, notching over 800 runs in nine matches with all the attacking verve that epitomises this new and transformed England side.
Brook is indispensable in the side so who drops out for the returning Bairstow?
There seems to be two clear options: Ben Foakes or one of the openers – Zak Crawley and Ben Duckett.
Bairstow replacing Foakes would be the obvious change. The Yorkshireman would take the gloves and bat in his favoured position at number seven.
But in Foakes, England have one of the premier wicketkeepers in world cricket, the Surrey man has undeniably proved his value behind the stumps, with Sir Alastair Cook describing him as “Mr Reliable” during the New Zealand series.
The run out of Michael Bracewell in the second Test was down to the quick-thinking of Foakes and led to a New Zealand collapse. Dropping Foakes would be harsh and while it might be the obvious change to make to fit Bairstow in the side, this England side does anything but the obvious.
Crawley to drop out, but can Bairstow open?
Duckett has looked assured at the top of the order and has impressed enough on his return to the Test side to ensure he remains in the side, especially against spin, which could prove vital given the importance of Nathan Lyon in the current Australia side.
Crawley has been consistently backed by England, but his returns have remained mediocre and his place in the side must be on the line.
However, Bairstow has never opened in red-ball cricket and despite success at the top of the order in the white-ball side, opening the batting in Test cricket is a different skill set.
The failed experiment of Jason Roy at the top of the order in the 2019 Ashes is a reminder of how different opening in Test cricket is compared to shorter formats.
England have other options if they opt to retain Foakes and drop Crawley. Brook has opened for Yorkshire and with Stokes’ troublesome knee preventing him from bowling as much as he might want, could he promote himself to the top of the order?
He did open once for England, when he partnered Jos Buttler in the second innings against the West Indies in 2020, when he scored 78 runs in 57 balls, when England won by 113 runs at Old Trafford.
The other option is nudging everyone up a place, with Ollie Pope opening, Joe Root at three, Brook at four, Bairstow at five and Stokes staying at six.
That option might be disruptive, considering how well Pope has settled at number three and the fact he has never opened the batting in international cricket.
Promoting Root to the top of the order might be a more sensible option but again, he has performed brilliantly at number four without the burden of the captaincy.
England will want to avoid any major disruptions to the batting order that has proved so successful in recent months and it is more likely that Bairstow will come in for either one of Foakes and Crawley, with the latter seeming like the more obvious option.
What about Archer, Wood and Ahmed?
England have not only been aggressive with the bat but also with the ball, with Stokes deploying attacking fields and encouraging his bowlers to continue to bowl wicket-taking balls.
Ollie Robinson, James Anderson and Stuart Broad have continuously looked threatening, especially on flat, barren surfaces in Pakistan, while Jack Leach is looking more and more like a front-line spinner.
When one of the three front-line bowlers were absent last summer, Matthew Potts and Jamie Overton stepped in and impressed.
But Stokes has selection headaches with his bowling line-up going into the Ashes, with Jofra Archer and Mark Wood knocking on the door.
England’s captain has indicated that he wants Archer “fit and firing” for the Ashes, as the fast bowler continues his return from injury with the white-ball side.
Robinson’s performances since returning to the side against South Africa make him a near certainty for the Ashes, so could Stokes use the return of Archer and Wood as an opportunity to rotate his seamers?
Anderson and Broad have been stalwarts for England but they are approaching the twilight of their careers, with Anderson turning 41 and Broad 37 by the time the Ashes rolls around.
It might be shrewd for Stokes to keep his bowlers fresh, especially considering his own, ongoing issues with his knee (more on this later).
Either way, it’s not a bad headache for Stokes to have going into the summer.
And what about Rehan Ahmed? The teenage leg-spinner was so impressive in the final Test against Pakistan but was left out in New Zealand.
England needed two spinners in Pakistan, so it was the perfect opportunity to give Ahmed a taste of international cricket.
This summer’s Ashes might prove too soon for Ahmed, but he might be a useful member of the squad in case Leach suffers an injury.
Is Stokes’ fitness a concern?
One of the major concerns after the New Zealand series was the fitness of Stokes.
England’s captain has been managing a knee issue for some time, but it was particularly apparent in New Zealand.
Stokes was unable to show his best with either bat or ball against the Kiwis, bowling just nine overs across two matches and clutching his knee as England chased victory in Wellington.
He scored just 110 runs in two matches and clearly is feeling the effects of a gruelling winter schedule.
England fans will be fretting over the fitness of Stokes, who has made it clear that he will fulfil his £1.6m IPL deal with the Chennai Super Kings.
“I’m not going to lie, it has been very frustrating knowing something has been holding me back from performing as I’d like to, especially as fourth seamer,” he said after the second Test.
“I’m not a surgeon, but I knew when I’d bowled a bit it didn’t feel good. I’ve got a four-month period now to get it even better before the Ashes and I’ll be doing everything I can.
“I’ve been in different situations where I’ve been good, I’ve gone through situations where it’s not been good, but if anything I’ll probably take my commitment to getting it better even more now. I’ve been working hard with our physio and medics but once the games came around, it’s been hard to get everything done around my knee.
“I’m going to the IPL, don’t worry. I’ve had conversations with Flem (CSK coach Stephen Fleming) and he’s fully aware of the situation with my body at the moment.”
The one-off match against Ireland from Thursday June 1 could prove useful as a chance for England to experiment with their batting order and bowling line-up, but it would be a major blow if Stokes isn’t fully fit when Australia come knocking.
Stokes and McCullum have turned England’s men’s Test side around since taking over but with their biggest test on the horizon, there is plenty for the pair to mull over between now and June.
Watch the Ashes live on Sky Sports Main Event and Cricket this summer, starting from Thursday June 16 at Edgbaston. Stream the biggest moments on NOW or Get Sky Sport.