1) How do England manage without Ben Stokes?
With difficulty. The last time he was absent for more than the odd Test was in the 2017-18 Ashes, when he was helping Bristol police with their inquiries. England lost 4-0, and it was hard to say what they missed most – Stokes’s batting, his bowling, or his blazing presence. This summer, though, they have already had to do without him to an extent. In the third Test against West Indies, he couldn’t bowl; in the first Test against Pakistan, he barely batted, making nought and nine. And he has been dropping catches. If he was superhuman in the first two Covid Tests, he has been a mere mortal in the last two. Since his debut, England’s record is much the same whether Stokes is on board (won 30, lost 29, drawn eight) or not (won eight, lost seven, drawn three). His usual understudy is Sam Curran, the man with the golden home record (played eight, won eight). But this time it has to be a batsman, as a fifth bowler had already been brought in to bowl Stokes’s overs. Cometh the hour, cometh Zak Crawley. Curran may sneak in too, depending on …
2) What happens to Jimmy Anderson?
In English cricket, there’s one surefire way to make everybody love you: stick around for ages. Alastair Cook, who played 161 Tests and then retired after a ropey last few years, was rewarded with an instant knighthood. Ian Botham, who followed a long and thrilling career as a cricketer with a long and plodding one as a commentator, is heading, rather bizarrely, for the House of Lords. The latest venerable veteran is Jimmy Anderson who, unlike Cook or Botham, has got better while getting older – until now. This summer he has looked good, run in hard, touched 87mph, racked up maidens, yet somehow mislaid his mojo. He has taken six wickets in 92 overs while a fellow oldie (Stuart Broad) has 22 in 92.4 and a fellow swinger (Chris Woakes) has 15 in 91. If England are still rotating, Anderson is due a rest; if not, he may well be, very tactfully, dropped. It’s significant the selectors have sent for Ollie Robinson, the Brighton McGrath. He surely has more chance than a fading maestro of making his mark on the 2021-22 Ashes, and needs blooding soon.
3) Is Dom Bess up to it?
It was said of Steve Waugh after he beat his twin, Mark, to a Baggy Green that he wasn’t even the best player in his family. At Taunton, Dom Bess isn’t seen as the best spinner in Somerset – he’s behind Jack Leach. All summer England have preferred Bess, who’s easily the better fielder and batsman, unless you’re looking for an epic one not out. Leach is clearly the more incisive bowler, taking a Test wicket every 60 balls as against 80 for Bess, who was unlucky with Jos Buttler’s handiwork last week but doesn’t often trouble top players. As a left-armer Leach is also more of a threat to Pakistan’s batsmen, who are nearly all right-handed. He may be rusty, after falling ill before lockdown and being ignored since, but these weird times have shown rust is less of a handicap than we thought.
4) Is Jos Buttler good enough to retain the gloves?
With his fearless 75, Buttler had his finest hour in a white shirt – but only because he had just had a nightmare. He stressed he had been trying to atone for his wicketkeeping, which had been “not good enough”. His honesty was impressive. And now there’s talk of letting Buttler play as a batsman, as he did for a year from May 2018. Bringing Ben Foakes back as keeper would sharpen the fielding. But Buttler has another role behind the stumps: being Joe Root’s left-hand man. Root, more of a good guy than a born boss, heads a triumvirate. Standing at first slip, he relies on his neighbours: Stokes as the alpha male who makes things happen, Buttler as the thinker who stays cool when the battle heats up. Deprived of one consigliere, Root is unlikely to dislodge the other.
5) Does anyone know anything any more?
Every time a Covid Test is played, another piece of received wisdom goes up in smoke. We now see that it’s fine to hold three Tests on the trot at the same ground, something that had never happened in England in 140 years, as long as you have a groundsman like Matt Merchant, who laid on three results, three absorbing contests and opportunities for everyone. We now see that a crowd, though desirable, is not indispensable. Pakistan brought their own noise. England made their own match-winning momentum. The great community of cricket lovers carried on regardless, watching on Sky, listening to TMS, following the live blogs, fitting the drama into real life, tapping on clips on their phones, relishing the elegance of Babar Azam, the exuberance of Yasir Shah, the audacity of Ollie Pope, the composure of Buttler, the wonder of Woakes, the unbeatable undulations of long-form sport.