If Test cricket is on the retreat then nobody appears to have told England. Their forthcoming series in Sri Lanka begins a year of 17 Test matches, a total chalked up just once before, in 2016, and that eventually resulted in an exhausted Alastair Cook calling time on his captaincy.
Should Joe Root lead throughout 2021 he will have done so 61 times in all, passing Cook’s record of 59. Fitness permitting that is very much the plan, too: while other players will sit out Tests during a 12-month period that also features up to 28 bilateral white-ball games and a T20 World Cup, Root intends to sit out only some of the short stuff.
This pile up of Tests is a product of the pandemic. The two-match Sri Lanka series that starts on 14 January should have taken place last March, while talks with New Zealand over two at home in June – regardless of whether the better-placed Black Caps make the World Test Championship final – are a case of English cricket trying to claw back some of the £100m losses incurred last season.
With nine Tests against India either side of this additional New Zealand series and an Ashes campaign to cap things off (taking the total to 18 Tests if you factor in the first week of 2022), England will face the top three sides in the rankings. It will be a defining period for Root’s legacy as captain and a team he insists is on an upward curve.
Central to this will be how the multi-format players cope physically and mentally, not least with an Indian Premier League to factor in and the much-discussed bubble fatigue that has become an acute concern during the pandemic. To that end, Ben Stokes and Jofra Archer are the first to rest during this initial tour.
The absence of Stokes in Sri Lanka means Root is without his regular vice-captain – he has never won on the road without his deputy – and Jos Buttler becomes the No 2 in the interim. Buttler will also retain the gloves, despite Ben Foakes, a standout performer during the 3-0 win on the island back in 2018, being part of the squad.
“It will have to be a real unique situation for that to change,” said Root, before the team’s departure for Sri Lanka on Saturday. “Jos is coming off the back of 152 [against Pakistan in the final Test in August] and in probably some of the best form you’ve seen him in Test cricket.
“As a senior squad member in great form, Jos was an integral part of our success in the back end of the summer. I’m really excited for him to carry that form forward.”
Root went on to state Foakes will probably get his chance during the India series that follows, with Buttler expected to return home to rest halfway through. “When he [Foakes] gets that opportunity, he’s got to take it,” the captain said.
This is England’s overall mantra leading up to the Ashes. The rotation plan may be unpalatable for some – not least when facing a team like India – but the management view it as a pragmatic response to the sheer volume of cricket and, as shown by the Foakes example, believe competition for places will heat up as a result.
Others charged with forcing selection headaches are Jonny Bairstow and Dan Lawrence, who in Sri Lanka appear the beneficiaries of Ollie Pope’s delayed return from shoulder surgery and paternity leave for Rory Burns, while the hope is that Mark Wood can put a frustrating 2020 behind him in Archer’s absence.
Which of these can force their way into the plans come the first Ashes Test in Brisbane remains to be seen. But over the course of the next year – a sardine tin of fixtures set to challenge the hardiness of the players like never before – it will be fascinating to observe how it all unfolds.