Andy Flower banned any talk of the Ashes when England hosted New Zealand in early 2013, a month before the back-to-back series against Australia when they triumphed at home but then disintegrated Down Under.
Fast forward to the present day and Flower’s equivalent has no such qualms. Players have been told to move away from the word “bubble” for mental health reasons but when discussing the 15-man squad to take on New Zealand – the first in his new dual role as head coach and selector – Chris Silverwood happily and heavily referenced the coming winter with regard to his summer plans.
“We want to travel to Australia, fitter, faster, leaner, more ready than ever before,” said Silverwood, to give one example of this running theme. “And [so] they get off the plane and it is ‘right, we’re here, we mean business and we’re full of confidence’ and that will take us through.”
There is a risk the Ashes chat diverts minds away from the task at hand. After all, Kane Williamson’s New Zealand, visitors for two Tests, and Virat Kohli’s India, arriving for five from August, are the finalists when the World Test Championship is decided at the Rose Bowl from 18 June; both possess bowling attacks that should relish English conditions and the Dukes ball.
“We have the greatest respect for our opposition,” Silverwood said. “To get to where we want to be against Australia, we have to perform well in these Tests.
“It’s not that we rate Australia [more than] anyone else. We understand that we have two of the best teams in the world in front of us. Play well against them, play to our abilities, it will help us win the Ashes as well.”
England face a tricky balance, although some experimentation has been forced upon Silverwood initially. Shorn of Jofra Archer and Ben Stokes through injury and having deemed Chris Woakes, Sam Curran and Jos Buttler in need of a break from biosecure arrangements after their elongated winters ended with 10 days of quarantine, the squad to face New Zealand at Lord’s and Edgbaston has a fresh feel to it.
The uncapped James Bracey and Ollie Robinson have 12 months as reserves in the set-up rewarded with places in the main squad, while Ben Foakes is in line for a home debut behind the stumps after eight caps on the road. Craig Overton also returns, reportedly upskilled from his four previous outings and having chewed through line-ups for Somerset in the past two years.
As a left-handed top-order batsman and wicketkeeper, Bracey covers two areas. Becoming Gloucestershire’s first Test cricketer since Jon Lewis in 2006 appears to hinge on whether Dom Sibley’s broken finger has recovered or if there is a change of heart about Foakes being Buttler’s wicket-keeping understudy.
Rory Burns will want to start well at opener, with Silverwood hinting that Surrey’s captain will be recalled and partner Sibley, followed by Zak Crawley at No 3.
Robinson is rewarded for consistent excellence at Sussex, the 6ft 5in right-armer having taken 114 first-class wickets at 17 since the start of 2019 and earned plenty of praise from peers through his nagging lines and diligent plans. Both uncapped players are likely to feature at some stage with Silverwood stating an aversion to granting debuts during you-know-what.
More pressing is the make-up of the XI. Though yet to pick up a bat, Stokes is back bowling in the nets after his broken finger and in line to play for Durham in the T20 Blast next month. But with Woakes and Curran also missing, there is no all-rounder to call upon and Silverwood admits No 8 is the ceiling for Robinson or Overton. It may be that Jack Leach, the sole spinner in the 15, carries the drinks and England turn to Joe Root’s off-breaks, unless there is a heatwave in the next fortnight or they opt for a longer tail.
The latter course would mean dropping Ollie Pope or Dan Lawrence at a time when England want their two middle-order talents exposed to quality attacks. As such, four seamers feels likeliest given there are two out-and-out quicks in the squad – Mark Wood and Olly Stone – who operate in short bursts and two senior men in Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad.
Archer is due to see a consultant this week to discuss whether he needs surgery on the troublesome right elbow from which he generates his bullwhip pace. As is the case for the team as a whole, Silverwood wants him fit and firing for when England’s unashamed priority gets under way.