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If not them, who?

by Justin Rourke

It has been a strange winter, on the face of it 3-3 from six tests across Sri Lanka and India looks like a decent outcome. Closer inspection will see it was very much a winter of two halves, the second of which we lost 3-0 (given that was part of a 4 test series, it’s not ideal).

India was always going to be an especially difficult task; they are a formidable team and even more so at home. Part of the complexity of this winter has been trying to protect players wellbeing whilst in a global pandemic. The intent I think is widely respected, the implementation however, has been very poor and Messrs Giles and Smith were missing in action when explanations were required.

No doubt players do need rest, but the policy this winter was an abject failure. The Moeen Ali /Dom Bess farce and the incredibly difficult round trip Bairstow and Wood made demonstrate this. It also has clearly shown that the T20 World Cup is more important to Giles than an away test series in India. 

The rest and rotation merry-go-round did not help selection, but even taking that out of the equation England picked two very odd line ups for the 3rd and 4th test matches.

All of the above has created a lot of noise and comment but does distract from the key problem, England’s test match batting is not good enough, especially to the top three but realistically the top 7.

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The bowling is largely in a good place, Jack Leach has emerged correctly as our no1 spinner and over the next 12 tests I cannot foresee us picking 2 spinners. We have three exceptional experienced bowlers in Anderson, Broad and Woakes and three genuinely fast bowlers in Archer, Wood and the find of the winter for me Olly Stone.

So, how do we fix the batting? Firstly, there are some mitigating circumstances – a combination of covid/paternity leave/injury and the afore mentioned chaotic rotation policy means that a number of the batsmen played test cricket this winter with no match practice. In some instances, with literally no first-class cricket for a number of months. Burns, Pope, Bairstow and Foakes in particular fall into this camp. A large part of batting is about rhythm, feel and touch and this is hard to replicate if you are not playing the game. This is especially true of players with a lot of moving parts (Burns, Sibley) and touch players (Root, Pope) but in reality, it is a huge disadvantage to all players.

The pitches were also largely very tough, and many of our players will not have been used to them. However, the standard of batting was still poor even in this context, this is magnified if you take Root’s incredible 3 test sequence out as no one else contributed a single 100 across six test matches!

When Chris Silverwood teamed up with Root in late 2019 they made a specific effort to stop ‘fitting square pegs into round holes’ and set about having a top 3 that would create a platform for batsmen 4-7 to be able to play the attacking cricket they wish to play.

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Since that New Zealand tour there have been 18 tests, of which Dom Sibley has played all 18 and Root 17. Only Root (56.21) and Stokes (43.25) average above 40 – they are the only two to have sored 1000 runs. And whilst four players have scored a single century only Root (4), Stokes (2) and Sibley (2) have scored more than one.

The reality is that I expect England to enter the summer with largely the same top 7 they have backed over this period (assuming all are available). This is at least in part because all of that top 7 have scored test match 100’s in recent times, because 2020 has been an unusual year and also because they are not overrun with alternatives.

The one player missing form this top 7 who many will want to see is Dan Lawrence. He started and ended the winter with composed test match 50’s and showed a good range of strokes. Here is the real challenge for England, ideally for many people we lose one of Burns or Sibley from this top 7 and add in Lawrence. However, this requires Crawley to open (which I am fine with), but then one of Root, Stokes, Pope or Lawrence has to bat at no3. Whilst I do wonder if we sometimes attach too much significance to ‘specialist’ batting positions, the reality is none of these players want to bat there, or have much meaningful experience of doing so. Is this a huge problem? Jonathan Trott was a no4 for Warwickshire but did the job exceptionally, Marnus Labuschagne was also not a no3 before opportunity presented itself.

On the other hand, there are plenty who will argue that none of these players have the defence or temperament to bat at three and a specialist no3/opener is needed. It is also compelling that Crawley has a double hundred at no3 and crucially he wants to bat there. That is something I have not heard any other England player say, nor do I see many in the county game batting there.

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Thus I think he will, and that Burns and Sibley with two test hundreds each will get the chance to open. I fluctuate a lot on these two players, Burns has great character and actually has a good range of shots. He also has an Ashes 100, but last year his technique was faltering as he was planting his front foot. Sibley you have to admire, he is a really diligent man who has worked out a method for playing the dukes ball in England at county level and scored a stack of runs, he has recognised he needed to improve his fitness after 2 tests and he lost a stack of weight. He has underpinned some good innings and has remarkable patience and powers of endurance. But … there is a but for me. England were too fast and loose under Baylis in test cricket, but Sibley does struggle to rotate the strike due to his bottom hand grip. It makes it hard to manipulate the ball into space and this means he gets stuck where one bowler can bowl ball after ball at him. With two 5 test match series coming up, and some very good bowlers it does mean that bowlers can set him up. It also can inadvertently put pressure on the man at the other end.

I hate the phrase ’it’s the way I play’ when batsmen get out to attacking shots, I also don’t like the ‘I’ll have a go because one has my name on it’ thought process (a reflection of when and how CC is played). Test batsmen should be able to play all types of innings, it’s been great to see Root, Stokes and to an extent Buttler take this on board – I am not sure Sibley has another gear and against fast bowling in Australia that worries me. We need to be clear about this before we get there, not looking for a new opener whist there.

So, if not the seven above, who else?

Here we have a range of experienced county cricketers all of whom have played test cricket and five of them have test hundreds to their name. This was an interesting exercise for a number of reasons, it especially highlights why first class stats can be misleading. They do not necessarily represent how a cricketer will thrive or fail at test level (think Ramps and Hick versus Tres and Vaughan), and also they are not time weighted. For example, if you looked at stats alone both Ballance and Bairstow should be playing test cricket, but we actually know that both players have technical issues that mean the latter part of their test careers have made poor watching.

Joe Denly has cult status on my twitter feed (I fear I will regret saying anything negative), but on stats alone his test record is poor. Similarly, Sam Robson would appear to be unlucky, he only got 7 games and has a record not dissimilar to Sibley and Burns.

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There is a growing call for Dawid Malan (again on twitter) to get a test recall, especially as he has an Ashes 100 in Australia. In reality though I don’t see a space at 4,5 or 6 so are we going to shoehorn another player into no3?

My own view on the list above is that their collective ship has sailed. Some of them may have made good test cricketers but that time has passed – but thanks Joe, Jonny, Gary and James for all filling in the troublesome no3 spot so that others could be protected.

So, if not the current incumbents, or those from the recent past, who?

I have had a look at a range of players aged 23-28 who have all played England Lions cricket, some have been in test match squads and two have played (and some people would keep them in the test team).

Of course, there are others out there, Bracey, Hameed, Lammonby but I have picked this seven based on my view of their talent, technique and temperament. In all honesty their first class averages are not that compelling but as we have already seen a high first class average does not guarantee test success. And there are four players in the current test team (Crawley, Root, Stokes, Buttler) who all have a better test match batting average than first class.

This is not ‘new news’ and even Joe Root himself has said country cricket needs to change to better support the test team. This is not the fault of the players but playing 4 day cricket in April, May and September with a dukes ball does not make for a test player. The bowlers do not have to work as hard for their wickets (hence very little quality spin or pace) and the batsmen have to learn to play stump to stump accurate medium pace bowling with little movement.  This, at least in part, explains the procession of bottom hand/leg side dominant players like Sibley, Westley and co.

So, are any of these players different? Yes, is my view, they may not be good enough for test cricket but I think they have attributes that make them worth considering. Firstly, the top three on the list have all played a lot of their fist class cricket in the top 3 for their county. So, opening or batting at no3 is something they have experience of doing. All three also have a strong back foot game, in test cricket you need to be able to play the short ball both in defence and also to have scoring options. This is especially true when we eventually get to Australia.

In particular Gubbins and Bell-Drummond play with an economy of movement before the ball is released and have a strong game both straight back past the bowler and also square either side of the wicket on the back foot. They have both played quite a bit of England Lions cricket and have shone when doing so, which is an indication of temperament and liking the big occasion.  I do not find it surprising that they have not played as well at county level after not making the next step up to England, it must feel a little deflating and I think it also makes players feel like they need to change their game to get picked. Both lost their way for a season or two, but at age 27 (the same age Andrew Strauss and Alec Stewart made their debut’s in test cricket) I think they have a maturity and skill that could be worth exploring.

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In the middle order I very much like the look of Dan Lawrence as a batsman, we have not had the chance to see how he plays quick bowling but I think we will this summer. Unless he makes the bold move to say he wants to no3 spot I see him as being in a tussle with Ollie Pope for the no6 position. If that is the case, I am fine with that, Pope is a serious talent but has had a poor year and competition for places is not a bad thing. They may well both play (Foakes too) versus New Zealand if Stokes and Buttler are still at the IPL.

The final thing that jumped out to me on the ‘next cab off the rank’ group was the conversion rate of Joe Clarke. He has played a remarkably similar amount of matches and has a similar average to Lawrence. The standout number is the 17 centuries from 80 games, this says a lot about his ability to go big, but also suggests some feast and famine when you look at his average. He spent much of 2018 with the England Test squad and was clearly earmarked as a test player, he moved to Trent Bridge and opened his account with 112 and 97* – the events thereafter are well documented but Clarke has served his punishment and worked hard on his game. He has a simple and classic technique that looks made for the step up. His challenge is that he is after Ollie Pope and Dan Lawrence in the queue to bat at no6.

So, what is the answer? I think that Root and Stokes are set in at four and five, Jos Buttler will keep and bat at 7 and Zak Crawley will bat in the top 3. As I said at the outset, I believe England will back Burns, Sibley and Pope. If the IPL interferes with the NZ tests Lawrence and Foakes will play.

However, I think the top 3 is still not convincing or settled, I’d like to see England have a look at Gubbins and Bell-Drummond.

I also think that Pope, Lawrence and Joe Clarke should be asking their counties to let them bat at no3.  

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