Here is one thing Joe Root is certain about – Jos Buttler will be back in the England team as wicketkeeper and vice-captain for the fifth Test at Old Trafford. Beyond that Root has got plenty to ponder: about the make-up of his bowling attack, whether England ought to rest Jimmy Anderson or Ollie Robinson, if they should pick Jack Leach as a second spinner alongside Moeen Ali; what Buttler’s return means for the men who covered for him, Jonny Bairstow and Ollie Pope; if there is anything he can do to help fix his rickety slip cordon; and when, exactly, one of his middle order is going to give him some proper support by scoring a century.
Robinson and Anderson have bowled 330 overs between them in this series – the other seven bowlers England have used have got through only another 354. And while Root was confident both were fit, he was cagey about whether that meant they would both play. “You never want to go into a Test match playing someone under risk of injury.”
England’s captain was clear about Ali, though, describing him as “our first spinner”. As for Buttler: “I know his output in terms of runs in this series has not been as high as he would like,” Root said, “but he is the vice-captain of this team, he is a senior player and he is integral to what we are about.”
All of which feels like plenty to be getting on with and that is before looking past the next week. Root said himself that in the back of his mind he has nagging worries about the Ashes this winter. “Everyone wants to know what is going on,” he said. “The sooner that can be put forward to us the better.
“As players all we can focus on is this next game. We can keep having good honest conversations about what we are going to face when it comes around but we have to try and look after the here and now, and make sure we put in a really strong performance here at Old Trafford. When we do get that information, we’ll have some discussions and decisions to make.”
It is hard to stay in the here and now when the fixtures are already being racked up for next summer. An hour before Root spoke the ECB announced the schedule for 2022, which includes three Tests against New Zealand, three Tests, three one-day internationals and three Twenty20s against South Africa, and another tour by India, who will play three ODIs and three T20s.
That all came with a footnote: “The ECB remains in discussions with key stakeholders regarding the 2022 England Women’s home schedule and the structure of the men’s and women’s domestic seasons.” Those “key stakeholders” apparently do not include Root.
“I don’t think I’ll be privy to those conversations,” Root said. But he clearly feels he has something to contribute to them. “It would be nice to see Test cricket seriously considered as a priority within that scheduling. Look at how this summer has gone and how we’ve been hampered – and whether it be through injury or in terms of our preparation, we have been slightly hampered.
“We’ve been told that Test cricket is a priority in this country and I think that should feed into the county game as well. Hopefully that is paramount and something that is seriously considered for next year along with some other very important pieces in the domestic structure.”
They may not read like it but these seemed strong words for a man who usually shies away from criticising his board. They carried the implication that for all the talk about how Test cricket is the pinnacle of the game, it has not been treated that way this summer. And given the way England’s players have been scrabbling around looking for their Test match form in white-ball cricket, there will not be many people who would contradict him. Not outside of the ECB’s headquarters, anyway.
But Root soon moved on to a broader point about pitches. “Ultimately it comes down to playing on good wickets. That’s part of the challenge – it doesn’t really matter what time of year you play if the wickets are of a standard that can produce good cricket.”
He felt the Oval was the perfect example. “You’ve got seam and swing in the first innings and then it got very good for batting throughout the middle phase of the game, and then reverse swing came into it. So it had a bit of everything. That’s the sort of thing we should be mirroring in county cricket so guys have to deal with all aspects of the game.
“If all the guys can experience that before they come into Test cricket, the better they will be able to manage the challenges it presents. So it would be really nice to see that created in the county schedule, sooner rather than later.”
As if he did not have enough on his mind already without fretting about what the groundsmen are up to around the counties. No wonder Root is batting so well – he must feel the middle is just about the only place in English cricket where there is not something else he needs to worry about.