For five weeks, they have been Lions in Sri Lanka – but now 10 of the one-day squad switch their attention to the North-South Series in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, meaning they will be rivals rather than team-mates.
It is a prospect that intrigues Andy Flower, the Lions head coach who will be working with Paul Farbrace on the South coaching staff – against a North team captained by his Lions leader, Keaton Jennings, and also including Ben Duckett, Liam Livingstone, Joe Clarke, Josh Poysden and Graeme White.
“It should be interesting,” said Flower, after the Lions ended the tour with consecutive wins in Colombo to restrict Sri Lanka A to a 3-2 series win.
“It’s a new concept – we don’t know if it will be successful. But I think it’s worth giving it a try. I think the boys are quite looking forward to it.
“Certainly their experiences over the last five weeks, and the training camp in Dubai prior to Christmas, sets them up really nicely, to use some of the skill and knowledge they’ve gained over the winter to put their case forward for selection - right in front of the selectors, and some of the main England coaches.
"To use some of the skill and knowledge they’ve gained over the winter to put their case forward for selection - right in front of the selectors, and some of the main England coaches."
“So it’s a great opportunity for them, and it will be interesting to see the combination of people trying to put themselves on show in front of those decision-makers, but also whether there is an edge to the cricket with both teams competing to win. We need that, to provide the pressure that the selectors want to see these guys play under.”
Flower believes the presence of England selectors throughout the Lions tour has already been highly beneficial – and not only because it allowed Angus Fraser to recommend Tom Curran as cover for Jake Ball with the senior squad in the West Indies.
“Chatting with both Gus and Mick Newell, who has been here for the one-dayers, they’ve both found it very useful,” he added. “To see the players out in the middle against good quality opposition, more experienced international cricketers than we had in our squad. But also to get to know them off the field, to understand them as people a little. And now they’ll take that knowledge with them to Dubai.”
Flower identified Lancashire’s Liam Livingstone as one player who had advanced a particularly strong case on the tour, as one of three ever-presents in both the four-day and one-day games against Sri Lanka A with Jennings and the wicketkeeper Ben Foakes.
“Obviously Livingstone was a stand-out performer with the bat throughout the series,” he said, “and if he has a strong North-South Series I can see him pushing for an international place fairly soon in the limited overs forms of the game. He’s shown a real understanding of how to play spin, shown tremendous power, and he’s shown the capacity to learn quite quickly. With his part-time off-spin, he’s stolen some tactics used by the Sri Lankans.
"He’s watched and he’s learned from them, they bowl very simple style of wicket to wicket spin bowling and he’s done exactly what they’ve done to us, and with real success against their batsmen. He’s also got the capacity to bowl leg-spin at their right-handers, but because his off-spin was working so well he didn’t resort to it very often. But he’s grown in confidence in all aspects of his game, and it’s always nice to see our young players grow in confidence.”
There have been numerous other impressive individual performances – Toby Roland-Jones was man of the match in the Lions’ four-day win in Kandy, when both Curran brothers and Tom Helm also bowled well, and Tom Westley went close to a century. Livingstone’s batting, with a century in each innings, and Foakes’s wicketkeeping, with a record-breaking 10 dismissals, stole the show in the second four-dayer.
The one-day series began with Craig Overton striking a career-best with the bat and the Somerset seamer has bowled consistently throughout. Daniel Bell-Drummond scored a century and Tom Alsop 96 in a record-breaking partnership in Colombo, left-arm spinner White impressed with three wickets on debut and Helm rounded things off with a five-star bowling performance.
But Flower believes that all the players will benefit from their experience.
“Of course there are people on the tour who haven’t had that level of success – and that can also be a great experience for them,” he explained. “We were doing our end of tour wrap-ups and debriefs with the players today just before we left, and even though some of them haven’t got the black and white results they would have liked, I think they’ve used the experience out here in Sri Lanka to learn more about themselves. So they can still take a lot from the experience out of their comfort zone in these conditions.”
He also praised the contributions of three recruits from county cricket on his support staff – Chris Silverwood of Essex, Mark Rausa of Glamorgan and Ross Herridge of Nottinghamshire.
"Obviously Livingstone was a stand-out performer with the bat throughout the series and if he has a strong North-South Series I can see him pushing for an international place fairly soon."
“We asked Chris Silverwood to join us as an assistant coach on this tour of Sri Lanka, primarily because of his fast-bowling expertise, but also because he’s now quite an experienced all-round coach. And he’s proved really valuable in both those areas. He’s been a really good support to me, someone who I can trust, and it’s been great having another head coach of a county side, after Steve Rhodes from Worcestershire last winter, coming to contribute to our national programme. I think they’re really good relationships for us to have with influential county leaders, and it reminds us all that we are in this together doing our best for English cricket.
“Mark Rausa from Glamorgan and Ross from Notts have also joined us on tour as physio and S&C respectively, following on from Crofton Alexander from Leicestershire in the pre-Christmas training camp. Building those connnections and those relationships with the counties is very much a part of making our game stronger and better connected. We look forward to continuing to use the excellent county practitioners that are available to us.”