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Jos Buttler and Dom Bess selections about more than the numbers for Ed Smith

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After all the talk of analytics, Ed Smith simply went with a hunch in selecting his first Test squad. Or, as he calls it, “cricketing judgement.”

There’s little statistical evidence to support the recall of Jos Buttler. He hasn’t scored a first-class century since January 2014 or a first-class half-century since December 2016. Heck, he hasn’t even played a first-class match since September. It is a selection that would have been unthinkable a few years ago.

The selection of Dom Bess is almost as punchy. Bess is just 20, after all, and has only played three Championship (and five first-class) games away from Taunton. Had Jack Leach been fit, Bess might have thought himself fortunate to make it into a Somerset first team for which he has taken one wicket this season. Now he stands on the brink of a Test debut at Lord’s. A ground he has never bowled on in a first-class match.

But none of these facts make the selections wrong. Buttler is, clearly, a player of exceptional natural talent. In playing him at No. 7, Smith and co. hope he will have the freedom to play his natural, uninhibited game. He’s not going to be asked to change. He is going to be asked to embrace his natural talents and show the world how good he is.

And Bess, for all his limited experience, is actually not an especially surprising selection. Not once Leach was struck down, anyway. Bess had impressed the England management hugely when training with the squad last year – Trevor Bayliss was particularly taken by his fielding – and, once given an opportunity with England Lions and the MCC, took it impressively well. He claimed five-wicket hauls in both the first-class games he played in the Caribbean. It’s not as if England’s spin bowling stocks are overflowing, either. It seems certain he will play, with the final place in the side contested by Mark Wood and Chris Woakes.

“Analytics didn’t play a huge part in selection today,” Smith told ESPNcricinfo. “It’s based on cricketing judgments. I am interested in analytics and all sports at the cutting edge look to find the most useful insights. But it doesn’t mean you do away with cricketing judgement.

That having been said, he is quick to provide statistical evidence to support both selections.

“Jos averages 31 in Test cricket and 35 at home,” Smith said, though the figure for home Tests is actually 32.40. “In the period of time since he made his debut in 2014, debutants are averaging 26 for England.

“James Vince playing well is a terrific player to watch. But there’s a bigger picture with him. Throughout his cricketing history – in Tests and also levels below that – he has not produced the runs he should have done” Ed Smith on the omitted James Vince

“Dom Bess averages 22 with the ball and 25 with the bat. He’s had a terrific start to his first-class career and, when he’s had the chance to play in a representative match – whether for North v South or the MCC – he has grabbed those opportunities.

“So there are statistical arguments to make for the selection. But it didn’t really play a part in it the selection. It was just the feeling of the selection panel.

“It’s the whole package with Jos. It’s what he’s capable of, what the opposition knows he’s capable of, what he brings to the side beyond merely that batsmanship. We felt that a player of his unique gifts – a destructive batsman, a fantastic competitive presence, a dynamic athlete, and someone who has leadership skills innate in him – and someone who is playing with such confidence and flair, this was the right time.

“He hasn’t been picked because of the IPL and I’m fully aware he hasn’t played a red-ball match since the back-end of last season.”

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The foundations of this squad were laid when Smith – and his fellow selectors – asked themselves the question: how do we improve the top five. Years of poor starts have hamstrung England’s efforts and left them over reliant on a strong middle and lower-middle order.

And the answer to that first question was: move Jonny Bairstow to No. 5. “We all felt he has the physical, athletic capacity to continue his excellent form as a top batsman and keep very well as well,” Smith explained.

Then, with Joe Root suggesting it may be best for the team if he moved to No. 3 – “I think it’s a really good move from Joe,” Smith said, “it was something that came from him” – and Dawid Malan a certain pick after a decent Ashes, it became clear there was no place for James Vince. And while Smith insisted the door remained open to both Vince and Moeen Ali, both may find it requires quite a shove.

“James Vince playing well is a terrific player to watch,” Smith said. “But there’s a bigger picture with him. Throughout his cricketing history – in Tests and also levels below that – he has not produced the runs he should have done.

“He has not defined enough matches in a way that a top-order batsman with his ability should. In the last couple of days he’s done exactly that. If he can bat in that manner, if he can bat for eight-and-a-half hours, with all the other things he can do, then the door is not closed on him.

“Moeen had a difficult winter. We know he can be a very productive player in English conditions. But the role of first choice spinner might not be best suited to him. His best way might be as second spinner.”

Smith declined to talk about who else was considered. He knows that, were he to offer public encouragement to Joe Clarke or Nick Gubbins, it might only serve to increase the pressure on the current members of the side. And, while his reasons for dropping Vince could easily be used as an argument against selecting Buttler, he believes their roles in the side – top-order as opposed to No. 7 – weaken the strength of the point. Intriguingly, Smith also mentioned Buttler’s leadership qualities. After an impressive spell as interim white-ball captain, it is not impossible if this experiment goes well that he could graduate into a replacement for Root as and when required.

And Mark Stoneman? “Given the games he’s played in – which have not been that easy, such as the tough tour of Australia, we felt Mark Stoneman deserved his place in this squad,” Smith said. “He averages 30 in Test cricket. He’s made some 50s in Test cricket. At times he has played well.”

But it is the selections of Buttler and Bess that will draw the most attention. It reminds us that the world has changed. Where once a player – well, an England player anyway – was required to prove he had the technique to conquer the moving ball or the consistency to produce for season after season, now selection can be earned on talent and promise.

Might there be days when Buttler’s relative lack of red-ball success – he averages a modest 31.51 in first-class cricket – come back to haunt him? Days when the moving ball exposes him or the short ball troubles him?

Of course.

But there may also be times when his batting changes games. When his run-scoring rattles opposition and enraptures crowds. And, it wasn’t so long ago England took a similar punt in moving Ben Stokes to No. 6. It will be a lot of fun if it works.

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