Next week Chris Silverwood names his first England Test squad as both the head coach and sole selector, adding an extra frisson to the six County Championship fixtures that begin on Thursday and, touch wood, are the last behind closed doors.
To be fair, through a combination of decent weather, good pitches, the revamped streaming services and, perhaps, the curtailed Indian Premier League, the competition has already crackled this year. The players were clearly coiled springs after last summer’s truncated campaign and the digital gurus tell us the audiences are greater and younger than the tired old cliches often have it.
This surge of energy has given Silverwood plenty to consider for the two-Test series against New Zealand that starts at Lord’s on 2 June: so too the 10-day quarantine being undertaken by England’s IPL players. Jos Buttler, Chris Woakes, Jonny Bairstow, Sam Curran and Moeen Ali will not emerge until Sunday, hampering their ability to get match-ready before the squad bubbles up on 28 May.
The absence of Ben Stokes with a broken finger makes balancing the Test side tricky. Four seamers, with Joe Root and Dan Lawrence the spin options, could be the way Silverwood leans unless Jack Leach plays and the tail is lengthened. As a purveyor of right-arm pace back in the day, England’s latest supremo-Yorkshireman will be pleased at the queue starting to form here.
It could yet include Jofra Archer, who has been named in the Sussex squad that host Kent. The fast bowler returns from a worryingly persistent elbow injury and though he recently blew off the cobwebs in the second XI, he will need to prove his fitness in the first team given Sussex do not have a fixture next week.
Archer’s county colleague Ollie Robinson also gets one final workout before his expected call-up – Silverwood is a known admirer of the 6ft 5in right-armer and wants him blooded this summer – while over at Taunton, where Somerset host Surrey, Craig Overton is in the home team’s squad despite a heavy workload.
There is a danger that Overton is pigeonholed after four Tests but since the start of last year he has taken 62 first-class wickets at 13 apiece, put a truckload of overs in and is said to be hitting the bat harder than before. Throw in a good number of valuable lower-order contributions with the bat and it is not hard to see why Somerset are keeping pace with Gloucestershire at the top of Group Two.
Robinson and Overton could both make the England squad but the shake-up for the final XI will be competitive. Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad are up and running this season – albeit neither Lancashire nor Nottinghamshire play this week – with Broad telling PA Media: “By the end of last summer I think we showed that Jimmy and I were both in the best bowling attack in England.”
Silverwood may have other ideas, of course, and has outright pace options to factor in also. As well as Archer’s return, Mark Wood is part of the Durham side hosting Worcestershire, while Olly Stone, resting given Warwickshire do not play, is expected to be fit despite a toe infection limiting his overs last week.
This break for the Bears means Dom Sibley will make his comeback in the second XI after a fractured finger and thus has only next week’s trip to Essex before Test duties. Any doubts here could present a chance for Gloucestershire’s James Bracey – perhaps at No 3 behind Rory Burns and Zak Crawley if so – although Adam Lyth, part of the unbeaten Yorkshire side visiting Glamorgan, and James Vince, whose Hampshire side meet Middlesex at Lord’s, can further their claims.
Bracey could also keep wicket if Buttler is afforded time off although Ben Foakes, who has won all eight of his Test caps away from home, will consider himself ahead here. Surrey’s velvet-gloved matinee idol can shut down the debate at Taunton, where Ollie Pope will want further time at the crease before he, Root and Lawrence (playing for Essex at Derbyshire) make up England’s likely middle order.
Silverwood has meetings with his rejigged backroom staff in Loughborough on Thursday before choosing where to visit in person thereafter. As thousands young and old have already done this season, he can always switch between matches online too.
Fixtures: Durham v Worcestershire, Chester-le-street; Essex v Derbyshire, Chelmsford; Middlesex v Hampshire, Lord’s; Somerset v Surrey, Taunton;
Glamorgan v Yorkshire, Cardiff; Sussex v Kent, Hove.