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Can England finally solve their opening batsman conundrum?

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Players_cricket_rest_tiredFew things better illustrate the topsy-turvy nature of international cricket than the fortunes of England over recent years. Since hitting the twin nadirs of the 2013-14 Ashes whitewash and elimination from the 2015 World Cup, English cricket has undergone a renaissance swifter and more profound than anyone could have possibly imagined in the immediate aftermath of those lowest of low points.  

The limited-overs sides have made particularly giant strides, a Damascene conversion to the modern realities of the game having been translated into spectacular results: a World T20 Final appearance and an unaccustomed installation as favourites for the fifty-over Champions Trophy to be played on home soil next year. The Test side, too, is evolving into one fit to challenge again for the ICC Test Mace: bowling well, batting deep and winning eighteen out of the thirty-three Tests they have played since that ill-fated trip Down Under.  

The high water mark of English Test success was set in 2011 as the series whitewash of India confirmed their place as the ICC’s number one ranked side in the world. It was an England team to rival that of the 2005 Ashes, a side built on a strong batting line-up, an aggressive fielding unit and a well-balanced, skilful bowling attack.

For many of the players in that team, 2013-14 proved to be the tour too far, and beyond it Jonathan Trott, Ian Bell, Matt Prior and, infamously, Kevin Pietersen were destined to feature little, if at all, for England again.

But far more than the absence of those great players, it has been the retirement of two others which continues to be most keenly felt. The lack of an adequate replacement for Graeme Swann has been well discussed, particularly – and inevitably – in the run-up to any excursion to the sub-continent, but it is the ongoing question mark over selection at the top of the order that also hinders England’s potential transformation from being a good side into a great one.   

 

In the four years since Andrew Strauss’s retirement Alastair Cook has been paired with no less than nine different opening partners. None has lasted longer than Alex Hales’ eleven matches or ended with an average greater than Joe Root’s 37.66, with Nick Compton and Sam Robson (just) the only others with an average of over thirty. Michael Carberry can perhaps count himself as most hard done by, his reward for returning England’s third-best batting average of that disastrous 2013-14 winter tour being an unceremonious dumping in favour of Robson the following summer.

Subsequent auditions for Trott, Adam Lyth and Moeen Ali alongside Cook delayed Alex Hales’ opportunity to show if his limited-overs shot-making could be carried into the Test arena, but since making his debut in Durban last Christmas the opposite seems to have happened. The most notable weakness identified and exploited by South Africa’s seamers during that series – Hales’ tendency towards a leaden-footed swish – has been replaced more recently by frugal self-denial and a parsimonious reluctance to take a chance. It is as if the pressure to be a Test Match Opener has got into his head and stopped him from being the authoritative, explosive batsman that was selected in the first place. Hales can hardly be blamed for that, of course, especially when those voices that had so vociferously called for his selection in South Africa then choose to round on him for playing his natural game, but at the moment he does not look comfortable either in himself or in the Test environment. The bottom line is that Hales is still a terrific player, but it remains to be seen whether he will be given many more opportunities to get his approach right and finally cement that place in the Test line-up.   

One way or another, the events of this winter will bring that particular situation to a head. Hales’ decision not to tour Bangladesh has opened the door to others, and in Ben Duckett and Haseeb Hameed England have the two young players who may well be destined to become their long-term opening partnership in the post-Cook era.     

With a Championship return of 1,338 runs at 60.81 for Northants it was Duckett who was given the nod for the Test matches in Bangladesh, and in challenging conditions he responded with 92 runs at 23, including a half century in Dhaka.  

Hameed must have run him close, however. The nineteen-year-old has also enjoyed a remarkable season, scoring 1,198 runs at 49.91 for Lancashire with four centuries including two in a match against Yorkshire, so becoming the first from his county to achieve that particular feat.  

It is his temperament, though, which is even more striking. Hameed’s natural, easy-going confidence in his own ability, somewhat reminiscent of Joe Root, bodes extremely well for the future. His style is his own, watchful, solid, secure, an old school technique uninfluenced by modern, three-sixty-style fashion. He places a high price on his wicket – not for nothing is he compared with Geoffrey Boycott. And, crucially, he has a proven track record in the domestic game against the best bowlers English cricket can offer.  

Duckett’s selection in Bangladesh, like that of Hales before him, demonstrates England’s desire to find an opener in the mould of David Warner, a batsman capable of unleashing shock and awe on the opposition whilst the England captain goes about his steady, relentless accumulation at the other end.

 

More desirable, however, is consistency. In Bangladesh, England were placed on the back foot too often by the collective failure of their top order, finding themselves three or four wickets down for not much in three out of their four innings. With what is probably the most challenging away series in world cricket looming, they cannot afford for that situation to be repeated.

The number four slot is troublesome. Gary Ballance, for many a surprise selection to tour let alone play in the Bangladesh Tests, has been in horrible form and surely must miss out on the first Test at Rajkot. Replacing him with Duckett, allowing Hameed to open with Cook, is surely the way to go.

A combination of Cook and Hameed would provide a left and right-hand combination as well as the best chance of building a platform at the top of the order. Below them there is plenty of potential for fireworks, with Joe Root, Ben Stokes, Jonny Bairstow and Moeen Ali just a few of the formidable array of batsmen capable of not only leading recovery from a precarious situation – as demonstrated in the first innings at Chittagong, for example – but of very quickly taking the game away from the opposition. It would represent the perfect combination of traditional and fifty over-inspired strategy. Add a freed-up Ben Duckett at four to the mix and England has an even more formidable line-up.

The larger issue, though, goes without saying. The position of opener needs to be settled. The greatest teams in history have been built on the consistency of their opening partnerships, whether with bat or with ball. England have to get this right, and whoever they finally decide to go with needs to be given the support and time to make the transition from the domestic to the international game properly. And crucially, unlike many of his predecessors, he must be allowed the time to play his way back from failure if necessary. Even if it were to mean a little short term pain, the long-term gain for English cricket will be well worth it.

 

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Jake Perry is a freelance cricket writer. He writes regularly on Scottish cricket for Cricket Scotl...

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