International Cricket

Eng vs WI, 1st Test – Rob Key backs promotion for ‘rare talent’ as Jamie Smith earns maiden Test call-up

Rob Key, England men’s managing director, says he is picking as much on potential as performance in turning to Jamie Smith and Shoaib Bashir as the Test wicketkeeper and specialist spinner respectively for the upcoming series against West Indies, despite the fact that neither player is a first-choice option for their counties.

Smith, who will turn 24 on day three of the Lord’s Test, made a century for Surrey in their ongoing County Championship fixture against Essex at the Kia Oval, just hours after it was confirmed that he would be taking over as England keeper from his county team-mate, Ben Foakes, who remains Surrey’s preference in the role.

Likewise, Bashir, 20, has been retained as the solitary specialist spinner in England’s 14-man squad for the first two Tests against West Indies, having claimed 17 wickets in three Tests on a breakthrough tour of India in the spring. This comes despite him having to move to Worcestershire on loan this season, with his England team-mate Jack Leach, who left the India tour early through injury, remaining the No. 1 spinner at Bashir’s home county of Somerset.

Speaking in the wake of the squad announcement, Key defended the right of counties to pick the teams that suit their specific requirements. In Surrey’s case, they are chasing a third consecutive County Championship title with a team that includes Foakes batting at No. 5 and with Dan Lawrence – whom Key specifically named as the “reserve batsman” in England’s Test squad – playing as their frontline spinner.

However, Key also made no apology for his insistence that the standard required at international level means that tough judgement calls needed to be made on the ceilings of certain players. And this included an uncompromising verdict on both of Smith’s two immediate predecessors as wicketkeeper, Foakes and Jonny Bairstow, who has also been dropped from the set-up after playing his 100th Test in Dharamsala in March.

“People are never happy when they’re dropped, and I never want them to be,” Key said, adding that Brendon McCullum, the Test coach, had made the initial calls to inform both players of their omissions.

“Jonny just needs to get back to what he was a couple of years ago,” Key said, referencing Bairstow’s astonishing run of form in the original “Bazball” summer of 2022, when his four hundreds in five innings propelled a stunning turnaround in the Test team’s fortunes.

Soon after that, however, he suffered a freak broken leg while playing golf, and while he recovered sufficiently to reclaim his place in both the Test team and the T20 World Cup squad, his mobility in the field has repeatedly been called into question, especially when selected as wicketkeeper during last summer’s drawn Ashes series.

“Generally his form, in all formats, has just been going slightly in the wrong direction,” Key said. “You want him to get back to what he was when Brendon and Ben [Stokes] started out. It’s an arduous task being a keeper. You want someone who can back up series after series, and we weren’t convinced that Jonny would be able to do that, especially at the stage of his career that he’s at.”

By contrast, there are no complaints about Foakes’ glovework, which is routinely considered to be among the best in the world game. However, his batting on the recent India tour lacked the dynamism expected of the current Test team, with his 205 runs in ten innings coming at a strike-rate of less than 40, including an innings of 17 from 76 balls in Ranchi, at a time when England’s innings was crying out for a counterattack.

“Ben Foakes is an excellent keeper, his keeping’s not in question at all,” Key said. “But we want someone who can just up the ante at times when required. We feel that he can soak up pressure, and when he’s batting with a batsman at the other end, he’s more than capable. But his challenge is to bring that other side to his game.

“It’s not just about having one or the other. We want someone who can have both those forms of batting, and we feel that Jamie Smith can do that.

“Sometimes you’re selecting people for what they’re going to be, and where you think they can progress to,” Key added. “We’ve been watching Jamie Smith for quite some time. He was on the Lions a couple of years ago when I watched him out in Sri Lanka, and he looks a rare talent.”

England have made some peculiar calls with the wicketkeeper’s role in recent years, notably in 2021 when James Bracey – a Gloucestershire top-order batter with limited experience behind the stumps – was thrust into the role at short notice after Foakes suffered a freak dressing-room injury, and visibly struggled in his two Tests against New Zealand. Ollie Pope has also performed the role as a stopgap, most recently in Pakistan in 2022.

Key, however, had no doubts that his new selection would step up to the standards expected of a Test-class wicketkeeper.

“Obviously we don’t get to see much of him keeping in county cricket, but he’s more than a stopgap keeper, that’s for sure. It’s very much the start for Jamie Smith, and we feel that he’s going to be a fantastic international cricketer. He just needs his opportunity, and he’ll get it.”

A similar rationale explains the preference for Bashir over Leach, who has been a linchpin of England’s Test attack in recent years, and a trusted lieutenant of Stokes in particular, not least since his crucial support role with the bat in England’s miraculous win at Headingley in 2019.

Key, however, said he could not ignore the character that Bashir displayed in his maiden series in India, where he arrived with a record of just ten first-class wickets in his limited opportunities with Somerset, and departed with two five-wicket hauls.

“I love watching what he did in India,” Key said. “That was a tough task for someone to come in and do what he did. And when you watch him bowl, you just think he’s got everything, really, as a spinner. And he will get better.

“He’s right at the beginning of his career now, so we’re backing him to grow as time goes on. But this doesn’t mean that Leach’s time is done with us. If there’s ever a time when we need a second spinner, in places like Pakistan, I’d imagine that would be Jack Leach.”

Sussex’s Ollie Robinson is another notable absentee from the Test set-up after a lacklustre tour of India. And while Key said he took no notice of the record 43-run over that Robinson served up to Leicestershire’s Louis Kimber last week, he warned that the wealth of fast-bowling options in county cricket – including this week’s new selection, Dillon Pennington, meant that the onus was on Robinson to prove he’s ready to earn a recall.

“Ollie Robinson has got back to his best in the last couple of games, we just need to see that more often. It’s not a time to be taking your foot off the gas at all, because there’s some really good bowlers out there.

“Dillon Pennington probably wasn’t on our radar at all, but I’ve loved watching him bowl this summer. He has that little bit of pace, he’s relentless in his consistency, the angle that he bowls as well. He’s really kicked on this year. And we’ve enjoyed it.”

The Lord’s Test is set to be dominated by the impending retirement of James Anderson, but it will not be the last that the squad will see of him, with Key confirming that he would be staying on for the rest of the summer, in an exploratory mentor role.

“Jimmy will continue in our set-up, and he’ll help as a bit more of a mentor,” key said. “We’re trying to set up an elite coach development programme, which Jimmy wants to do, but we’ll have a look at the end of the summer.

“It might be something that he doesn’t enjoy, or it might be something that he absolutely loves. But he’s got so much to offer English cricket, so we don’t want to see that go. But it is going to be quite an occasion with him bowing out at Lord’s.”

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket

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