Jos Buttler could miss at least two of England's Tests against India in early 2021, with Ben Foakes set to be handed an opportunity as wicketkeeper for part of the four-match series.
England will rest all of their multi-format players at some stage in their tours to Sri Lanka and India, which run from early January to late March. Jofra Archer and Ben Stokes will miss the two Tests in Sri Lanka, while Buttler - England's other guaranteed starter across all three formats - looks set to be given a period of rest during the India series.
Buttler's likely absence will provide Foakes, who is the back-up wicketkeeper on the tour to Sri Lanka, with a chance to impress after nearly two years out of the side. Jonny Bairstow has also been recalled to the squad for the Sri Lanka series, but is currently being considered primarily as a specialist batsman. He is likely to bat in the top five in the absence of Stokes, Rory Burns - who is missing the tour to attend the birth of his first child - and the injured Ollie Pope.
"I think there will be opportunity for Ben Foakes at some point this winter," Ed Smith, the national selector, said. "Jos Buttler is certain to have a rest at some point, so that then will create or open up opportunities elsewhere. We've very fortunate in English cricket to have such strong depth in that area, and we'll try to deploy those resources intelligently and to the best use of the team.
"[Foakes] spent the whole summer in the bubble, and I think there's a real understanding that he's a very good cricketer and merits opportunities. I think there will be some opportunity for him at some point soon."
Bairstow has played a single Test since the end of the 2019 Ashes series, making 1 and 9 against South Africa at Centurion last winter. He made two appearances for Yorkshire in the Bob Willis Trophy last summer, with scores of 5, 75 and 22 while batting at No. 3, and Smith explained that he had been recalled in recognition of his impressive record in Asia and against spin.
"In his last Test match in Sri Lanka, he got a hundred in Colombo in that 3-0 series victory," Smith said. "He has a very good record against spin, and we saw in different formats what a talented player he is in recent weeks.
"He's missed out on selection over the last year and has obviously been very frustrated by that, but… with his pedigree as a player of spin in Asia, and with some gaps in the squad as well with Ben Stokes and Rory Burns not there, it felt like the perfect moment to re-introduce Jonny to the group."
Along with the rest of his selection panel, Smith has mapped out which series players are likely to be part of in the next three months, recognising that Covid protocols have made touring a significantly less appealing prospect than it used to be. With a packed international calendar coming up, player welfare is seen as an increasingly important consideration at the ECB, as evidenced by the postponement of the ODI series in South Africa this week.
Smith said that the selectors are viewing the six upcoming Tests in Asia in three separate blocks - the two Tests in Galle, the first and second Tests against India in Chennai, and the third and fourth in Ahmedabad - and intend to make changes to the squad for each of them. Those six Tests are followed by a five-match T20I series in India - in which Eoin Morgan has said he expects England to be at full strength as part of their T20 World Cup preparation - before three ODIs leading into the 2021 IPL season.
"We will be making changes to the India squad mid-tour," Smith said. "We won't be doing that at the last minute. There may obviously be changes beyond that, but we think that's the only way to make sure we balance having the right number of resources in each position, and also getting rest into those multi-format players like Jos Buttler, Jofra Archer, Ben Stokes, and also Sam Curran, Mark Wood, Chris Woakes etc."
With three of their regular top six absent, England are likely to promote Zak Crawley to open in the series against Sri Lanka, with Bairstow in line for selection in the middle order. Dan Lawrence may also be handed an international debut in the middle order, though Smith clarified that Pope - who will travel to Sri Lanka to continue his rehab - is hoping to be fit in time for the India tour following a shoulder injury.
"[Pope] had a hit last week," he said. "Ollie has obviously had a similar injury before. He came back brilliantly well and showed huge resilience, which is such an important part of being an international cricketer, having that psychological resilience.
"He's been hit by that injury again and he's absolutely determined to come back even better than ever. He's a sparkling batsman with a fantastic future ahead of him. We'll be sensible about when he comes back, as he will be too, but he'll be working and doing everything he can to be in the mix for the first Test in India."