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International Cricket: England spoiled by wealth of Ashes options

England's dramatic one-run defeat in the second Test against New Zealand ensured the two-match series ended all square and the five-day focus now switches to the eagerly-anticipated Ashes clashes back on home soil.

Many of the players who were on duty in the sensational Wellington finish on Monday will now watch on as the one-day and Twenty20 games against Bangladesh take place.

But it's the looming Ashes series that will begin to dominate the thoughts of supporters and no doubt the selectors, too, as they assess the New Zealand tour and ponder how they will manage the country's top players so most of them can feature in a team jam-packed full of Test talent.

Of course, there is still three and a half months to go before the first Ashes Test at Edgbaston and a Test against Ireland to play as well, so there is plenty of thinking time and, unfortunately for some, there's also time for injuries and a loss of form to rule some potential candidates out.

So just how do England get the likes of Jonny Bairstow, rising star Harry Brook, fit-again Jofra Archer and fellow paceman Mark Wood all into the side?

WhatEngland v Australia, 2023 Ashes series
WhereEdgbaston, Lord's, Headingley, Old Trafford, The Oval
WhenFriday 16th June -  Monday 31st July 2023
How to watchSky Sports Cricket & Main Event
Odds (outright)England 10/11, Draw 6/1, Australia 6/4

So many quality options on offer

There is already an abundance of talent amongst the regulars like skipper Ben Stokes, in-form veterans Stuart Broad and Jimmy Anderson and former captain Joe Root.

Then there's the options Ollie Robinson, Chris Woakes, if he proves his fitness, and Olly Stone offer. Suddenly there are almost too many top players to slot in.

It is a bit of a conundrum - albeit a nice one - as the ECB plots how to line-up a winning side for the Ashes and to make sure the hosts are in tip-top shape to take on the Aussies come 16th June.

England's Test form since Brendon McCullum took over last year has been outstanding.

Going into the second Test against the Black Caps, the tourists were chasing a seventh straight win in the five-day game after they maintained their incredible form of 2022 - when they saw off New Zealand, India and South Africa - into the early part of this year.

England in great overall form

If they had managed to see out victory this week it would have been an 11th win in 12 Tests and they were on their best run of form since 2010, underlining the transformational impact McCullum's decisive and positive approach has had on the Test team.

The narrowest of defeats will not have dampened expectations for the Ashes much and, come the summer, England are likely to be brimming with confidence, with the hosts 10/11 to win the series outright.

They do have one 'warm-up' match ahead of the Australian showdown with a Lord's Test against Ireland at the start of June - two weeks before the main event - and by that time it's hoped the team will be largely picked for the latest battle for the Little Urn.

Stokes, even though he has admitted his ongoing knee injury has been "holding him back" recently, will lead the side, barring any major setbacks, and it seems Bairstow will slot back in provided he has fully recovered from the broken ankle he suffered when playing golf at the end of last summer.

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Foakes vulnerable to Bairstow return

The man most likely to make way for Bairstow is Ben Foakes and the Surrey man admits it's an unwanted personal scenario for him but one he is not thinking too much about.

Before the second Test, he was quoted as saying: "At the stage I'm at, there's no point stressing over it. I'm having some good form in my career and I'm just trying to enjoy that.

"In international cricket you will always go through certain phases. There have been so many times have in my career when I've thought 'oh that's going to happen, that's going to happen' and it never has. So there's no point in worrying about it."

Crawley not cemented in opener role

Despite England's fine form, there remain question marks over who should open the batting.

A plethora of brilliant middle-order stars does not disguise the fact England have issues at the top of the order, with Zak Crawley struggling and there have been some suggestions Bairstow could be asked to open.

Brook has made a wonderful start to Test cricket - blasting 809 runs in just six outings - so the talented Yorkshireman seems certain to make the Ashes side but will remain lower down the order, meaning even though Crawley has failed to register a half-century in eight innings, he could retain his place.

Wood and Archer likely to feature

With the ball there are also selection dilemmas as Wood, who impressed in the recent 3-0 victory over Pakistan, was given a rest from all international and franchise cricket in January to recover following a busy winter in all formats.

He should be back in the fold, while England simply cannot afford to ignore Archer, even if he only made a return to action after his lengthy elbow and back injuries at the end of January after nearly two years out of the international arena.

However, with the five-match Aussie series condensed into just over seven weeks, it seems inevitable some of the fast bowlers will be rotated with the likes of 40-year-old Anderson and 36-year-old Broad probably set to be used sparingly and introduced into the attack at key moments when they will attempt to wreak maximum damage.

No one is complaining that England have so many good players all vying for places in the Ashes Test side.

And, while there are selections to be made and disappointment down the line for some, the McCullum era so far has been overwhelmingly positive, so the hosts will be ready, whoever makes the final XI, when the first Ashes action begins on June 16th.

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