England’s Test series against Pakistan starts in just over three weeks.
After a chastening winter in Australia and New Zealand, questions about who should be in the side remain unanswered.
With the majority of the England players missing the start of the season, have any of their rivals stood up during the first three rounds of the County Championship and shouted “pick me”?
Those with concerns about England’s batting line-up may want to look away now…
While early-season conditions have favoured the seam bowlers, few batsmen made significant contributions.
Only three Englishman have scored centuries in Division One this season, but Hampshire’s Sam Northeast now has a broken finger, Somerset’s James Hildreth is 33 years old and Surrey’s Ollie Pope, 20, has played only eight first-class games.
From the selectors’ point of view, the cupboard is looking worryingly bare.
Jamie Porter, Essex, 24
2018 – Wickets: 10; Average: 14.70
Career – Wickets: 219; Average: 23:33
Last year’s leading wicket-taker in the County Championship was back in the groove straight away this season, claiming match figures of 9-80 in his first outing against Lancashire.
Porter has enough pace to be problematic to batsmen, but relies on nagging accuracy with a knack of taking wickets when his side need them.
He has taken 219 first-class wickets at an average of 23.33 – that’s up there with the best of them.
Jake Ball, Nottinghamshire, 27
2018 – Wickets: 21; Average: 12.42
Career – Wickets: 166; Average: 25.10
The pace bowler has had a tough introduction to Test cricket.
Three wickets in four England matches at an average of 114.33 has left plenty questioning whether he has what it takes at international level.
But Ball keeps on impressing on the county circuit and already has 21 wickets in three games this season.
Pace, bounce and the ability to reach 90mph – maybe he should be given another chance.
Ben Coad, Yorkshire, 24
2018 – Wickets: 17; Average: 15.17
Career – Wickets: 72; Average: 20.88
The seamer burst on to the scene in 2017 when he took 31 wickets in Yorkshire’s opening five championship matches.
Like Porter, Coad is not express pace but has built a reputation for bowling miserly lines and running through batting line-ups.
A little bias may have crept in, but former international umpire and ex-Yorkshire president Dickie Bird has suggested Coad deserves a chance on the international stage.
One look at his career first-class average suggests he may have a point.
Mark Stoneman, Surrey, 30
2018 – Runs: 57; Average: 14.25
Career – Runs: 9,813; Average: 35.17
As the man in possession – Stoneman opened alongside Alastair Cook in the Ashes and both Tests in New Zealand – the left-hander perhaps has a little more leeway than his first-class figures this season suggest.
Two leg-side dismissals in the latest match against Lancashire – one bowled, one caught behind – suggest a batsman not quite at ease with his own game. Or maybe he was just unlucky.
At 30, he should be entering his prime as a batsman. Runs in Surrey’s home games against Worcestershire and Yorkshire appear a must before the squad for the first Test is set to be named on 20 May.
James Vince, Hampshire, 27
2018 – Runs: 175; Average: 34.60
Career – Runs: 8,399; Average: 38.17
Ah, James Vince. The Marmite in England’s Test side.
There is no doubting he is gorgeous to watch: flowing cover drives, easy flicks through mid-wicket, a power game if he needs it.
But then there is the problem everyone is talking about – edged, gone.
He began the season for Hampshire with a wonderful 75 off 74 balls against Worcestershire.
Since then, Vince has made scores of 12, 6, 33 and 47, although – perhaps on the plus side – only one of his five dismissals has been caught at slip.
Liam Livingstone, Lancashire, 24
2018 – Runs: 125; Average: 25.00
Career – Runs: 2,145; Average: 43.77
Big things are expected of Lancashire’s new captain but, like so many batsmen, he has struggled for runs in 2018.
A top score of 48 in five innings can be rectified in Lancashire’s matches against Somerset at Old Trafford and away at Nottinghamshire before the first Test of the summer.
With a first-class batting average of a shade under 44, the 24-year-old is one of the only batsmen on the fringes of the national side to average more than 40.
Part of the England squad that lost in New Zealand over the winter without playing a Test, surely Livingstone’s time will come.
Craig Overton, Somerset, 24
2018 – Wickets: 8; Average: 22.38
Career – Wickets: 210; Average: 26.50
Overton was one of the few England players to enhance their reputations during the miserable Ashes tour, performing admirably on unforgiving surfaces in the two Tests he managed before injury ended his tour.
He has begun the 2018 county campaign in promising if not spectacular fashion, helping Somerset win their opening two games to climb to second in Division One.
Three wickets against Worcestershire were hardly eye-catching, but five in the recent victory over Yorkshire suggested his form is on the up.
Amar Virdi, Surrey, 19
2018 – Wickets: 8; Average: 19.88
Career – Wickets: 14; Average: 30.71
With Moeen Ali dropped for England’s most recent Test – against New Zealand in March – the England selectors will be paying closer attention than normal to their spin options.
Not even a year has passed since teenager Virdi made his first-class debut for Surrey, but he has done enough in his five matches to suggest he has a bright future.
An off-spinner who gives the ball a rip, he has bowled in only two innings this summer, taking 4-79 against Hampshire and 4-80 against Lancashire.
Rather than time in the nets, many observers say the only thing holding Virdi back is time in the middle.
Haseeb Hameed, Lancashire, 21
2018 – Runs: 31; Average: 7.75
Career – Runs: 2,436; Average: 34.30
It is easy to forget that Haseeb Hameed is still only 21.
When he made his debut for England as a teenager against India in November 2016, he looked unflappable.
After a broken finger cut short his maiden tour, a downturn in form and fortune followed and left his Test career on hold after three matches. He averages less than 23 in first-class cricket since then.
The Bolton-born opener may have to wait a little longer for its resumption. He has made four single-figure scores for Lancashire in five innings this season and is without a hundred since his two centuries in the same game against Yorkshire thrust him into the limelight in August 2016.
Keaton Jennings, Lancashire, 25
2018 – Runs: 64; Average: 16.00
Career – Runs: 5,595; Average: 33.10
Keaton Jennings is another batsman who has endured a miserable run since scoring a century on his England debut, in Mumbai almost 18 months ago.
The left-hander was the County Championship’s leading run-scorer in 2016 with 1,548 runs for Durham, but scored fewer than half that number the following campaign.
A move to Lancashire last winter has not sparked an upturn in form; he has a highest score of 27 in five innings.
Joe Clarke, Worcestershire, 21
2018 – Runs: 88; Average: 14.66
Career – Runs: 3,071; Average: 39.37
Touted by former England captain Michael Vaughan at the start of 2016 as an Ashes prospect for this past winter, Joe Clarke never made it down under. Given England’s struggles, perhaps he should have gone.
The signs looked good before the season started – he made 46, 71 and 112 for the North against the South in the curtain-raiser in the Caribbean.
The 21-year-old has struggled to find form since – along with the majority of his Worcestershire team-mates – but there are still high hopes for his future.
Quick wrists, superb timing and the ability to score all around the wicket will mean little unless he converts his starts into big scores.
In terms of filling the problem batting spots, the selectors cannot like what they have seen this season.
No-one has made anything resembling a strong case to partner Alastair Cook at the top of the order, while Vince is hardly beating off rivals for the number three position.
On the evidence of this summer, the bowling options look healthier, but can Porter, Ball, Coad and company do enough to break into an established seam attack?
The next two weeks of County Championship action just got even more important…
*2018 statistics refer to the County Championship season; career statistics cover all first-class cricket.
Who would you like to see given a chance in England’s Test side? Have your say in the comments below.