Saqib Mahmood will make his long-awaited Test debut for England in Barbados, replacing Mark Wood in the XI after Ollie Robinson was deemed too much of a risk.
Saqib first appeared in a Test squad back in September 2019 but, despite picking up nine ODI caps and 12 in Twenty20 cricket, this week’s clash against the West Indies will be his first opportunity to prove his red-ball credentials at the highest level.
Robinson has also been pushing for selection after recovering well from the back spasms that kept him out of the drawn first Test but, having previously aired concerns over his conditioning and seen him struggle with the demands of five-day cricket, England have erred on the side of caution.
While that may say something about Robinson’s current stock that captain Joe Root and interim head coach feel Chris Woakes and Craig Overton are more reliable options after sending down 39 and 42 overs respectively last week, it may also be a reaction to Wood’s mid-game withdrawal with an elbow injury.
His absence for the second half of the match in Antigua placed a heavy burden on the rest of the attack and potentially took some of the heat out of England’s push for victory.
Although Saqib is not able to consistently clear the 90mph barrier like Wood, the Lancashire seamer is the closest to a like-for-like replacement and comfortably the quickest of those available.
A canny purveyor of reverse swing who excelled with the white-ball against Pakistan in the summer, Saqib has long been tipped for the top by team-mates and mentors at Emirates Old Trafford. Root, who watched the 25-year-old closely during a long workout in the nets on Monday has also developed an appreciation of a player who has more than served his time in warm-ups, touring squads and as an unused Covid replacement in the summer of 2020.
“He’s a great option to have up our sleeve,” said the England skipper.
“He’s very mature for a guy who hasn’t played a huge amount of international cricket; he has a real understanding of how he wants to operate.
“He’s been very impressive, he’s got a slightly different trajectory and will give us a point of difference. He’s done that when he’s played in other formats, he clearly has good control, especially if the ball moves with reverse swing.”
Saqib’s appearance accelerates the future-proofing element of this trip – a stated reason for the divisive droppings of James Anderson and Stuart Broad. He will be the 702nd man to play Test cricket for England and the third debutant in as many games after Sam Billings and Alex Lees.
He will be hoping for a smoother ride than Lees, the Durham opener who was dismissed for four and six by Kemar Roach.
“I think the challenge for any new player coming into the team is to not make any drastic changes. I think being strong on what you know serves you well for such a long period of time,” was Root’s advice for the left-hander.
“One of the most challenging things about batting at the top of the order, albeit I only did it for a limited amount of time in Test cricket, is the amount of time you’ve got to think on your dismissals.
“It is so easy to overthink and over analyse. So it’s about just making sure you are absolutely clear about how you want to go and play and being as ready for it and as assured as you can be.”
Root also offered a firm response to criticism from former West Indies all-rounder Carlos Brathwaite, who said the decision to play right through to the last seconds of the fifth day in Antigua was disrespectful given the match situation.
Root could have offered an early handshake but instead opted to go into the final over of the match, when a positive result was all but impossible.
“I’ve seen those comments and I think it was slightly unfair to say that,” he said.
“I have a huge amount of respect for every team we play against. We will always try to give ourselves the best opportunity to go and win every Test match. I don’t think there was anything wrong with our approach at all. Given the opportunity to do it again we’d go about it the same way.”