Let Root bed in at top of the order
Dave Tickner looks at England's Test squad and argues that Joe Root should open the batting in New Zealand.
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There are few surprises in the England Test squad for the tour of New Zealand announced on Thursday.
Samit Patel is a talented cricketer but had done little to suggest he offers enough as a specialist batsman to be retained for a Test series outside the sub-continent, while Eoin Morgan has been short of runs in India and hasn't played Test cricket for a year. Neither should be surprised at their omission.
Of more significance will be how the 15 names selected are trimmed to 11 in Dunedin on March 6. Because while England won't say it and New Zealand won't want to hear it, this is Ashes Countdown Time.
The five Tests against the Black Caps - three away, two at home in early summer - are the only remaining five-dayers for Alastair Cook's side before the Aussies arrive to start an epic 10-Test home-and-away battle for the urn.
Whatever side they put out England will expect, weather permitting, to win all five of those Tests against a New Zealand side demolished by South Africa and with uncertainty remaining over the participation of their only two Test-class batsmen, Ross Taylor and Jesse Ryder.
England must therefore name in Dunedin the XI they hope will take the field in Nottingham against Australia four months later.
And the most interesting selection is right at the top of the order, where Joe Root is making his case increasingly loudly.
His technique and temperament have impressed in equal measure as he takes his first steps as an international cricketer and there seems little doubt either that a long and successful career awaits or that the bulk of it will be spent at the top of the order.
The quandary for England is whether they want the 22-year-old Yorkshireman striding out to the middle to open the batting with captain Cook on the first morning of that Ashes opener at Trent Bridge in July.
If the answer is yes, and I think it should be, then he must be promoted now. Nick Compton has rightly been retained in the squad, but his debut series as a Test opener in India was rather summed up by his numbers: 208 runs at 34.66 is not a return that suggests a who should be written off at 29, but neither was it a performance that had anyone trumpeting the arrival of Andrew Strauss' long-term successor.
If Compton's returns were neither nowt nor summat, Root's debut knock of 73 at number six contained plenty of summat and his ODI performances have only added to the impression of a batsman of substance. A batsman who is, if you'll forgive the atrocious pun, taking root and will be hard to shift.
Root is only 22 years old. Cook is 28 and freakishly fit. They could be England's opening pair for the next decade and nothing we've seen of Root so far suggests there is anything to gain by delaying his elevation.
Indeed, what appears at first glance to be a gamble may even be the pragmatic approach. Were Root to fail, it would be less of a stretch for Compton to come back in with a decade of county cricket behind him than the reverse
There is another reason for such an elevation, apart from Root's own abilities: Jonny Bairstow.
His performance against the South Africans at Lord's last summer suggested a player with the right stuff for Ashes combat, but after failing (in controversial circumstances) in his one Test knock in India he too needs games and time to establish himself at this level.
Having moved ahead of the Patel, Morgan and James Taylor cabs on the batting rank, Bairstow's hopes of breaking into the side appear - barring an injury - to rely on Root moving from six to two, with Jonathan Trott, Kevin Pietersen and Ian Bell inked in at three, four and five.
So England must decide whether to put their Ashes faith in Yorkshire youth, and they must decide now. The decisions taken over the coming weeks will shape England's team for a year when the Ashes will head the sporting agenda.
If Compton plays in Dunedin, he must play right through the Ashes.
The one thing England must not do is stick with Compton for now, and then throw Root and Bairstow into the heat of Ashes conflict having denied both the chance (fair warning, there's another Root pun coming) to bed in.
On the bowling front, Tim Bresnan's elbow injury has clearly never been satisfactorily resolved; he averaged 23 with the ball before it, and over 55 since his return to the side. And it's not only the raw data that's against him with all agreeing his bowling has lost that crucial but unquantifiable quality of 'nip'.
So while he sits out the tour for nip-replacement surgery, Chris Woakes comes into the squad in his place. It's understandable: as a swing-bowler who bats, he's the closest like-for-like replacement.
His first-class record with bat and ball stands up to scrutiny, and his qualities look well-suited to New Zealand.
But he has no real pace to his bowling and pulled up few trees in a short stint with Wellington recently - picking up just four wickets at 57 in two first-class games.
He is surely fifth of the five seam bowlers in the squad, and it's doubtful whether he's good enough to be the third seamer in a four-man attack. He may well have the attributes, though, to be a fourth seamer who bats at number seven, but it seems highly unlikely England will switch to a five-man attack now.