Following my pieces on the summers of 1984-85 and 1985-86, here is the third in my trauma trilogy – a reminisce of the 1986-87 cricket season.
England’s build-up to the all-important second Ashes Test at Lord’s has been dominated by two storylines – the near-certain inclusion of paceman Jofra Archer for his Test debut and the decision to drop Moeen Ali for the left-arm spin of Jack Leach.
There is rightly much excitement about adding Archer’s speed to England’s attack, which in the absence of any real assistance from the pitch at Edgbaston, looked one-paced and toothless in the second innings. Regardless of whether he manages the unlikely feat of ruffling Steve Smith, Archer should worry Australia’s top order and help clean up the tail.
Banking on Leach seems like more of a punt. A lot has been made of Smith’s supposed fallibility against left-arm spin, averaging 35.66 compared to his overall 63.96. This ignores the slightly awkward fact that 35.66 is still better than the career Test averages of all but two of England’s batsmen (Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow), plus the mitigation that most of those lower scores were on treacherous subcontinent pitches.
Leach might have stolen the show as nightwatchman last month against Ireland, but bowled just three overs in the match and is short of practice with the county red ball season on hiatus for the shorter formats. He is also untested at this level in the pressurised role of lone spinner. So while he will almost definitely play, the jury is out on whether he can provide more cut-through than Moeen.
In their efforts to turn the series, England have another left-armer in their squad that they should named in the XI on Wednesday – Sam Curran.
The all-rounder has been largely overlooked in discussions to date, but has the talent, temperament and record to relieve the pressure on the newcomers and add depth to both the batting and bowling departments.
Bowling at first or second change, his left-arm medium is a genuine threat in English conditions, particularly moving the ball away from and back into right-handers. In six home Tests, including 2018’s series win over India, he has 16 wickets at 20.62 with a strike rate of 38.1, suggesting he can be game-breaker for Joe Root as the ball loses its shine.
The 21 year-old’s contributions with the bat have been just as noteworthy, belying his age and bailing out England’s brittle top order a number of times in his short career. Counter-attacking without being reckless, his Test average of 31.81 is up there with any England player in recent times.
Such was the impression that he left on the Indian team last year, he earned a big-money deal with Kings Punjab XI in this year’s IPL and promptly became the youngest player to take a hat trick in the competition’s history.
Selecting Curran would be a brave move by England, not because he is a gamble but because it would need a batsman to make way. Joe Denly, Jos Buttler and Jonny Bairstow all look short of form but, of the three, Denly is lacking a body of work to fall back on in international cricket.
Dropping him after only four Tests would be unusual for England’s selectors, but his current average of 21.75 suggests the team could only benefit by preferring the young all-rounder.
This would see Ben Stokes shift up to four, taking on extra responsibility in the top order while being relieved of much of his workload with the ball by Curran. Buttler and Bairstow would be backed to find form at five and six, with Curran slotting in at seven and providing extra security with Chris Woakes in the lower order.
With the ball, Joe Root would have a wealth of options at his disposal as he seeks the 20 wickets needed to square the series – Archer, Stuart Broad and Woakes combining pace and know-how up front, Curran offering a change of pace and angle, Stokes available for short bursts and Leach looking for turn as the pitch wears.
In reality, England are likely to persist with the batting line-up that played at Edgbaston, favouring consistency of selection rather than making a third change to the side. But in limiting Sam Curran to 12th man duties and putting the pressure on Archer and Leach to be the difference makers, they may come to regret overlooking the young man with the head for the big occasion.