Chris Silverwood has asked England supporters to understand the need for key players to miss Tests as the head coach and his fellow selectors grapple with a uniquely congested winter that is bookended by two Indian Premier League tournaments.
Jonny Bairstow, Mark Wood and Sam Curran are due to head home to rest following the 2-0 win in Sri Lanka, while Ben Stokes and Jofra Archer, already quarantining in Chennai ahead of the first Test starting next week, missed that initial series to take their allotted break.
With Bairstow considered one of the better players of spin but not back until the third of the four Tests in India, and the wicketkeeper Jos Buttler flying home after the first and not returning until the white-ball leg of the tour, England will be under strength against a side who have lost just once in their past 35 home Tests.
Asked about the much-debated rotation policy, Silverwood replied: “I stand by it. We’ve got to look after our people. We’re spending a lot of time locked in hotel rooms inside bio-secure bubbles and it’s not easy. It’s good that we’re being proactive and looking after people. I’m perfectly happy with the system.”
This is a winter like no other, it must be said. The pandemic has both packed the schedule – the Sri Lanka tour was meant to be last March – and thrown up additional challenges to player welfare through its restrictive bubble lifestyle, as highlighted by England’s issues in South Africa before Christmas.
Other than Wood, however, all of the players listed above featured in the seven-week IPL in October and November, and have been retained by their teams for the next edition of the tournament in April. There is cricketing merit to the IPL, no question, but also life-changing money that leaves the England management now feeling incapable of ordering anyone to skip it.
Asked to explain this to England fans, Silverwood replied: “What can you say? We’ve decided to rest and rotate, we’ve decided we need to look after the players. And I do believe we have to be proactive in looking after them, rather than wait until there’s a problem. The players can’t be with us all the time because it’s not the world we live in.”
That the Test team suffers this winter is also due to a desire to field a full‑strength Twenty20 side during the white-ball leg of the India tour in preparation for the World T20 in the same conditions later this year. Eoin Morgan, the white-ball captain, is perhaps a more powerful voice at the table than his Test equivalent, Joe Root, although the longer format will take precedence this summer.
With Archer’s return covering the loss of Wood, and Olly Stone another 90mph option here, Buttler’s departure after one Test in India is perhaps the most significant loss for Root. In Sri Lanka Buttler demonstrated his wicketkeeping can stand up to the additional pressure of spinning pitches and his batting – averaging 65 – did not suffer as a result.
While Bairstow also impressed, forging two century partnerships alongside Root, the Yorkshireman was less certain to keep his place in the first-choice XI; Rory Burns is back to open after paternity leave, the vice-captain Stokes returns to the middle order and Ollie Pope is now deemed a chance to be fit for the first Test.
Speaking to the Evening Standard about his break, Bairstow said: “If they hadn’t given me the break now, then when? It’s the way of the world at the moment and there’s no one who plays all three formats doing the whole tour.”
Asked to assess Bairstow’s performance in Sri Lanka, Silverwood replied: “Jonny asked me the same question and I said he’d done very well. He went into bat during some difficult periods and applied himself well on testing wickets. I was pleased with him.
“He’ll come back into the group then the rest is down to selection. We don’t make any guarantees to anybody – I don’t think you can. I do think it’s right he has a rest. Jonny is very busy, a multi-format player and we’ve got to give him a bit of time at home to chill out.”
For the players flying to Chennai on Wednesday a six-day hotel-room quarantine awaits before three days of training leading into the first Test. As well as the encouraging news about Pope, who underwent surgery on a dislocated shoulder last September, Silverwood said that Moeen Ali would be in contention after recovering from Covid-19.
The two-spinner strategy is likely to remain in place, however, meaning the incumbents Jack Leach and Dom Bess will surely get the first opportunity. Silverwood also admitted the performances of Stuart Broad and Jimmy Anderson – “it’s a privilege to have both of them” – could yet see the experienced duo paired at some stage, despite the main plan being to rotate them in one berth.
On the challenge of facing India, fresh from their famous victory in Australia, Silverwood said: “Do I think we can beat them? Yes. I always take the positive side of things. If we come out on top of this one, confidence will go through the roof for us.”