With two weeks until England take on Pakistan in the first Test of the summer at Lord's, Richard Mann assesses the chances of some of those pushing for a place in the first 11.
All eighteen counties are in action in the Specsavers County Championship this week and with a few spots in England's line up still up for grabs, here are a few of the names who could be in the frame for a starting berth if putting up strong performances over the next four days.
At the age of 27, Jake Ball looks to be approaching his peak and if England are to get the best out of this talented seamer, now might be the time give him an extended run in the side. Ball's winter Down Under was a miserable one, an injury picked up in a tour game clearly affecting him when he struggled to make an impact in the opening Test in Brisbane and he wasn't sighted thereafter. Nevertheless, English conditions suit his undoubted skills better, so much so that he has been touted as a long-term successor to James Anderson, and a clash with Pakistan in May might be the perfect time to reintroduce Ball to the fold. The Nottinghamshire man has certainly pushed his case in county cricket so far this season, his 25 wickets coming at 15.76, and with Mark Wood only recently returned from the IPL, it could be a case of now or never for Ball.
While incumbent Mark Stoneman has endured a lean start to the current season, 105 runs with a top score of 29, his team-mate and Surrey captain Rory Burns continues to put forward an impressive case for international honours. Burns has already amassed 340 runs at 56.66 this term to go with his 1041 runs at 49.57 last year. One thing seemingly counting against Burns seems to be the fact that he has made his runs on the traditionally flat Oval wicket, but Keaton Jennings and Haseeb Hameed are hardly knocking the door down and Burns can do no more than he is doing. With his first-class record on the upgrade and his captaincy impressing many onlookers, England might seriously consider taking a punt on the 26-year-old Burns, especially with Alastair Cook surely nearing the end of his illustrious career.
Pace. Pace. Pace. England's lack of it was thoroughly exposed in the winter of discontent Down Under and Mark Wood was drafted in for the last Test against New Zealand in March. He bowled well, and with aggression, but looked a long way away from topping 90mph and the return to traditional English seaming pitches might not suit the Durham man, nor will a spell in the IPL where he only played one game for Chennai Super Kings. In Ben Coad, England have the opportunity to select a young seamer whose career is on a steep upward curve and who has been exceptional in taking 23 wickets at 13.95 so far this term. That comes on top of Coad's 50 County Championship wickets last summer and it no surprise that many Yorkshire members believe Coad is now ready to follow the footsteps of White Rose legends Darren Gough and Matthew Hoggard into the England set-up. He might still be a yard short of 'pace', though.
Of all England's current top-order batsman, the one who sparks most debate is unquestionably James Vince. To some, he is a class act who has untapped potential as an international cricketer if given an extended run in the side. The benefits are huge and he must be backed. To others, he is a flaky character whose inability to make the most of his obvious talent and numerous starts highlights a weakness mentally that will stop him from succeeding at the highest level. He won't cut it and at 27, must be discarded for younger blood. Vince did little to settle the argument last winter having earned a shock recall, 336 runs at 30.54 somewhere between high-class and downright frustrating. Vince has started this season for Hampshire in a similar vein, and one fifty at 26.14 has his detractors up in arms again. One suspects England might stick with him for a little while longer but his fate might be decided by his famous cover drive; one ball sending the cherry whistling to the fence and the next offering catching practice to the fielders behind the wicket. Vince better hope there is more of the former when Pakistan's high-class seam attack comes to town.
If coach Trevor Bayliss fancies taking a punt and making a wild-card pick, Joe Clarke might be his man. The Worcestershire batsman is only 21-year-old years of age but he is a player of serious potential and is beginning to win plenty of admirers. Clarke was one of the main contributors to Worcestershire's Division Two title success last summer and he has begun life in the top tier of English cricket well enough, a magnificent 157 against Surrey at the Oval last week coming against an attack featuring Sam Curran, Rikki Clarke and Amar Virdi. It might still be early days for Clarke and he is far from the finished article, but neither was Joe Root when he was thrust into the side and that hunch didn't turn out too badly.