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Rest, rotate, drop? The secrets behind England's new super-strategy

Have England hit upon a new formula for glory, or are their tweaks undermining the foundations of Test cricket?

Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller
Ben Stokes, James Anderson and Joe Root - presumably - talk tactics, India vs England, 1st Test, Chennai, 4th day, February 8, 2021

Who's next for a rest? England's brains trust talk tactics  •  BCCI

As England prepare to make yet more changes to their Test team ahead of the third Test in Ahmedabad, we ask the important questions about a controversial policy that has got everyone talking.
So why's everyone so up in arms about England's rest and rotation policy then?
There's a perpetual paranoia in English circles about "undermining the sanctity of Test cricket" or some such. Which is a classic extension of English exceptionalism. "If we don't treat Test cricket as the be-all-and-end-all, then the format is doomed to irrelevance."
Remind me how many times England have been the world's No.1-ranked Test team?
Umm … once in the past 40 years, according to the ICC's historical rankings. Prior to that glorious 12 months of world dominance in 2011-12, we were last top of the pile in 1979-80, when err … Australia and West Indies had been denuded by World Series Cricket. But, that actually reinforces my point. If England are committing 100% of their resources to Test cricket, and still getting slam-dunked by all-comers on a month-by-month basis, then that surely serves as a barometer of the format's rude health.
So, how do you explain what happened to England's Test team between 2016 and 2019, when they seemed to get bowled out in a session every time you stood up to boil the kettle?
Well, they were still playing their best available XI at every opportunity. It's just that most of that XI had visions of World Cup glory swimming before their eyes at inopportune moments of fourth-day rearguards. You saw what happened to Mitchell Santner when he left a ball in the World Cup final. Careless negativity costs trophies!
At least now, with this new rest-and-rotate policy, England's players have enough wriggle-room in their poor, stunted, sportsmen's brains to recalibrate between formats. And that, surely, is for the greater good.
Rest, rotate, drop … explain the difference?
Ben Stokes and Jofra Archer were rested in Sri Lanka - because they are two of England's most precious assets across all three formats of the game, so they were left to charge their batteries for an extended Christmas break. And you can't say fairer than that, especially with a T20 World Cup looming in November, which makes England's five T20Is against India next month unusually important (no really).
James Anderson and Stuart Broad have been rotating around a single Test place in Sri Lanka and India - because they are still better than pretty much everyone else in the team, but they are also a bit old so we don't want to break them. Especially with the 2021-22 Ashes looming on the horizon … because, umm … their overseas records are the best in the business, and probing medium-pace on rock-hard Aussie decks is the proven means to unlock obstinate batting line-ups (Is this right? - Ed).
However, Dom Bess was most definitely dropped in Chennai, no two ways about it. Never mind the fact that he has taken 17 wickets at 22.41 in his first three Tests in Asia, and chipped in with 91 priceless runs at 22.75 to cement England's position in three consecutive victories. But the management have decided that he's a bit too spawny when push comes to shove, so he needs a break to work on being good rather than just lucky.
Isn't that the same as being rested and/or rotated?
No, because - and this is the clever part - England have managed to pre-meditate the need for breaks for those players who don't actually want or need breaks. Instead of putting them forward for Test selection, the management have been sending them back home for rest-and-rotation breaks that are meant to be ten days but, by the time they've factored in flight delays, and quarantine, and seven-and-a-half-hour bus journeys back to their gulag of a hotel room, they actually feel more like a day-release from Belmarsh.
And so, having journeyed to the ends of the earth just for the privilege of an afternoon of Daddy Day Care, all their psychological hang-ups about a social life conducted entirely through Call of Duty have magically dissipated. It's a masterstroke I tell you.
Masterstroke? What about these reports that England wanted Moeen Ali to stay on tour but he "chose" to go home, or that little Sammy Curran couldn't get his mum's permission to travel back to India on his own, and so will miss the rest of the series?
So, these are what might be described as the sort of unavoidable hiccups that come with maintaining a professional sports programme in the midst of a pandemic …
So it's nothing to do with the fact that both guys have landed whopping great contracts with Chennai Super Kings, and would rather save their bodies and minds for the IPL…
*Sigh* We've been through this all before. The Indian Premier League is a vital cradle of cricketing innovation. It's really not about the money for these plucky pioneers, it's all about the glory, and the prepping for further glory, because how could England have won the 2019 World Cup final without rehearsing their lines at a competition in which Super Overs are an oddly ubiquitous part of the experience?
Or, to throw things forward, how can England's pink panthers - Jofra Archer, Jos Buttler and Ben Stokes - hope to take their world-beating games to the next level, in time for November's T20 World Cup, without learning from the most sought-after cricketer on the planet [checks notes] … Chris Morris?
Pink panthers?
It just came to me. I won't go there again, honest.
Please don't. So how many players have England rested/rotated/dropped their way through this winter so far?
Well, if Chris Woakes gets a game at Ahmedabad, he will be their 20th selection in five Tests.
Twenty! Good grief … that's approaching England 1988-1993 levels of selectorial whimsy and gin-slinging…
Well, you say that, but England's record has been surprisingly good in spite of the upheaval - they've won three out of four of their Tests in Asia this winter, and at Chennai they inflicted on India only their second defeat on home soil in nine years.
They've won four out of four Test series since the start of 2020, and are winning approximately 70% of all their fixtures across formats. In fact, they are in such a cushty position that even Ed Smith, the national selector, was able to talk about "gaining a real edge in elite sports" without sounding like a slogan on Justin Langer's fridge.
What's more, the players who have been drafted into each new Test have tended to hit the ground running. Anderson claimed 6 for 40 in his first bowling performance of the winter in Galle, Stokes made an important 82 in Chennai, Archer bowled his best Test spell of the year in the same game. Moeen (bless him) took eight wickets and belted 43 runs from 18 balls after enduring his own personal Covid hell. It's almost as though they've been energised by their time off the treadmill…
So, is this the launch of an enlightened new policy, or the beginning of the end for everything that we hold dear about the grand old game of Test cricket?
Well, in case you haven't been paying attention, England are due to play 18 Tests in a 12-month span, including nine against India, five in Australia, and two against the world's best Test team, New Zealand. If Test cricket is about to die, then it sure as hell won't be through neglect on their part.
It might just be the death of a few Test careers, however, if every player in England's starting XI is expected to plough on through injury and burnout to front up in each and every contest. Anderson and Broad would probably be keeling over... oh, right about now, while Archer's hurty elbow would be reminding him that life was an awful lot simpler when he was just a T20 gun for hire, rather than the most prized cutting edge that an England captain has ever wielded.
Instead, with a little bit of give and take - admittedly not always at the most opportune of moments - England are in the process of building "an army of amazing cricketers" to fight on all fronts, as Dale Steyn, no less, put it in a series of tweets last week. As selection policies go, that's "pretty genius", Steyn added.
And lurking somewhere in Ahmedabad - probably behind the bowler's arm with his stylishly mirrored shades glinting in the floodlights - you suspect that Smith won't object if he can get that sort of a classification to stick.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. He tweets at @miller_cricket