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Ed Smith shows pragmatic side as England seek formula for overseas success

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It is to Ed Smith‘s credit as both a selector and a communicator that you can see how his cogs have whirred in naming his first overseas Test tour party, but also how those moving parts might continue to rotate now that he has retreated to the sidelines and handed those 16 names over to the whims of the England team management.

The first England Test squad since the retirement of Alastair Cook was never destined to be a simple pick. Never mind replacing the country’s all-time leading run-scorer, there’s also the issue of addressing England’s miserable recent overseas record which, by the time the first Test in Galle gets underway on November 6, will consist of nine defeats, three draws and no wins in the preceding 24 months.

And yet, Smith has placed pragmatism at the forefront of every aspect of his selection, and offered plausible justifications for each and every pick (even Keaton Jennings, the outstandingly contentious name, “conformed to the average”, Smith claimed, in a tough season for opening batsmen).

Quibbles are inevitable but overall it is a squad that manages to dodge the criticisms that more recent tour parties have attracted. Namely, that a handful of randoms have been tossed into a salad of optimism, and expected to succeed overseas where almost every party for the past five years has not.

Smith’s summer selections may have been sprinkled with a touch of funk, as first Jos Buttler and then Adil Rashid were brought back into the fold to provide moments of unequivocal impact. But this time around, he has set out to offer options rather than immediate answers – and to that end, Joe Denly, back in the England fold for the first time in nearly a decade, is perhaps the most option-laden of them all.

Admittedly, the way that Smith was talking about his former Kent team-mate – “fantastic athlete”, “brilliant mover”, “touch of class” – you’d have been forgiven for thinking that England had just unearthed the sport’s next wunderkind. Denly, for all that he has enjoyed a fantastic couple of seasons with Kent, is nothing of the sort: he is a 32-year-old in the midst of a second wind who admitted to Sky Sports yesterday that he feared his “chances had gone” before receiving the call that has the potential to transform his career.

But in terms of versatility, Denly has a real chance to be the player that this particular England team is crying out for – a pliable professional with an ever-improving second string as a legspinner, who may be able to help a squad with extraordinary depth to unlock its potential on a more regular basis.

“Joe Denly is there as a cricketer,” said Smith, when asked what role he had been picked to fulfil. “They are all there as cricketers … his job is to positively contribute to games of cricket.”

It was not as glib a response as it may seem on paper, for the sense is that England are moving towards an era of ever-greater flexibility in their Test ranks.

In fact, it was notable how Smith corrected himself when discussing the team’s options at the top of the order: after initially talking of “three people capable of batting at the top”, he changed that to “three people who have opened the batting a lot, as there are more people capable of opening the batting who haven’t done it”. Which begs the question, could the likes of Jonny Bairstow, Moeen Ali (inevitably) or even Chris Woakes be considered as candidates if England want to spread their all-round assets further up the order to ease their congestion in the middle?

After all, this is a team with more allrounders than it sometimes knows what to do with, and while Smith may have been guilty of wisdom after the event when he insisted that England’s happy habit of crucial tail-end runs had been “a strategy all through the summer”, there’s no denying the benefits of selecting players who can contribute in whatever role they are assigned.

“The way we’ve set up, we have quite a few permutations. This summer we were playing four seamers and two spinners. You would expect that to change in Sri Lanka” Ed Smith, England national selector

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“I don’t see it as a problem if you are good at more than one thing,” Smith said. “If you are in the side as a batter and you are also a good bowler, that’s all upside, that’s not a failure of selection. If you are in the side as a bowler and also get runs, that’s not a failure of selection.”

And to that end, you sense that Denly will be grateful to perform whatever task is asked of him – whether that is to make his Test debut as an opener if Jennings (or Rory Burns) is not trusted to front up at Galle, or to slot in at No. 3 – his more habitual role for Kent in recent seasons – if Moeen’s latest foray up the order is curtailed for whatever reason.

“I’ve batted in all positions and I think that’s probably helped my selection,” Denly said. “I started my career as an opening bat and moved down to No. 3; I’ve batted at No. 4 as well.

“I think that’s what I’ve got to do; I’ve got to prepare to bat in all those positions and, hopefully, if selected in a game I can take that chance at whatever number that is.”

Smith added: “The way we’ve set up as a team, we have quite a few permutations. This summer we were playing four seamers and two spinners at the end, having started off with four [seamers] and one [spinner]. You’d expect those proportions to change in Sri Lanka. And we have the capacity to [change].”

That they do, with a Test line-up that could well include, as Smith emphasised, “a front line legspinner [Rashid], a frontline offspinner [Moeen], a frontline left-arm orthodox [Jack Leach], plus an effective part-time legspinner [Denly] and a decent part-time offspinner [Joe Root].”

Similarly England’s seam options include three genuine allrounders in Woakes, Ben Stokes and Sam Curran, as well as the new kid on the block, Olly Stone, whose ability to bowl at 90mph had been a secondary consideration, Smith claimed, behind the fact that his 37 wickets for Warwickshire this season had come at 12.27 with a strike-rate of 22.2.

“It’s a bonus, the fact he’s got that pace. He’s not there just because he’s fast, he’s there because he’s doing a really good job. If it doesn’t fit into the best squad, an approximation to that that isn’t as good as someone who is a ‘conventional cricketer’.”

Questions will abound as the Sri Lanka series progresses. Is there really room, for example, for both of England’s veterans, James Anderson and (especially) Stuart Broad, given the need to balance batting depth with bowling options? And might Ollie Pope (the “spare batsman for No. 4 downwards”) have been better off touring with the Lions rather than gathering dust in the nets?

But overall, it’s a squad which ought to offer England’s management the right sort of headache as they attempt to mould a unit that can win at last overseas. And that, as far as the selection process goes, is about as much as one can ask for.

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