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Where are the emerging quality international batsmen?

by Neil Burns

The upcoming test series between England and India will offer an opportunity to several batsmen to nail down a place in England’s test match XI, AND gain selection for the prestigious Ashes Touring team to Australia this coming winter.

The series versus India should be iconic in its own right, given India’s prominence in the world game. But, the history between the sport’s longest-playing nations, dating back to 1877 at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (when Australia beat England by 37 runs) to win the first ever test match, created a series of cricket fixtures which went on to become the standard bearer for international cricket matches.

The iconic nature of an Ashes series in Australia means that any cricketer who excels in multiple test matches becomes regarded as ‘a serious player’. From an England perspective, history has proven that our very best cricketers were able to excel in Australia. The task is tough, because the standard of play, the hot weather, the hostility of the Australian crowd and media contribute towards making the experience merciless at times.

The Toughest Test

Many leading English cricketers have experienced heartbreak in Australia – and returned from an ashes series as a ‘broken’ cricketer’. Yet, the best find a way to experience triumph. Dating back through history, from Walter Hammond through to Sir Alastair Cook, the batsmen possessing the combination of both good technique matched by excellent temperament, have enhanced their reputations by succeeding Down Under in Australia’s cauldron of test cricket.

So, with only a matter of months before England sets off on what may prove to be one of the most eagerly awaited Ashes Tours to Australia, which batsmen will be able to feel confident about their ability to embrace the challenge of dominating the high pace, and clever spin bowling presented by the home team?

The Bankers for Test Selection

Joe Root is a given. He is a top-class batsman and captain. But who else can the same be said for? Ben Stokes, for sure. As for the rest… who can say with robust confidence that any other player selected for the top 6 will succeed on the toughest examination of their technique and temperament over an extended period on tour?

For starters, I think it would be fair to say that Surrey captain Rory Burns is ‘inked in’ to open the batting in the 1st test match in Brisbane on December 8th after his strong start to the English test match summer in 2021.

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Burns’ excellent hard-fought century v Australia at Edgbaston in 2019 revealed a welcome doggedness and fighting spirit when ‘the going got tough’ both for him and his team. Such performances carry additional weight of currency when compared to the making of runs in less demanding contexts against lesser quality opposition.

Joe Denly

Something similar could be said for Kent’s Joe Denly based on his good performance at The Oval in the same series, when Australia’s pace attack bowled with a rare level of sustained hostility. Denly stood up to the challenge well. And is worth a mention for this winter’s ashes series as a back up batsman to the openers or the individual selected to bat at number three.

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However, his season to date for Kent in the County Championship has revealed consistently poor returns (to date) for a player of his experience and relative quality.

Who Opens with Burns?

The choice of opening batsman to partner Rory Burns seems to come down to ‘a shoot-out’ between Dominic Sibley, Zak Crawley, Haseeb Hameed, and any other opening batsman who scores heavily between now and the end of this current season.

Dom Sibley

My sense is that Dom Sibley will be persevered with. He has been relatively successful on occasions and seems to have a strong mind based on his stubborn refusal to change his quirky technique so that it opens up the offside for scoring options.

Sibley has been quoted as saying that since he changed his game after leaving Surrey (and enjoyed some strong performances with a remodelled technique for Warwickshire) that he believes his game works – and he doesn’t intend to mess about with it.

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I admire his steadfast refusal to listen to ‘the noise’ generated by the media ‘experts’ and the cricket-loving supporters in England, but in my experience, the best performers are always ‘tinkering’ with their game and developing the necessary refinements to stay one step ahead of their opponents. Sibley looks limited outside the off stump and the notion that he can just ‘sit’ on bowlers until they bowl a straighter line so that he can score through the legside is flawed. Good bowlers won’t stray from a disciplined, probing line of 4th stump bowling.

Just ‘grinding it out’ for many hours (by using a solid defensive stroke and by leaving the ball judiciously outside off stump) is one approach. But, in my opinion, a batsman needs more than stubbornness and determination to succeed. The bowler must come to know that if he gets it wrong (too full, too straight, too short, too wide) then the delivery will be clinically despatched to the boundary.

The Schedule Limits Candidates for Test Selection

With a surfeit of t20 cricket dominating the landscape recently, it is going to be hard for lesser known batsmen to make a strong case for inclusion in the forthcoming series versus India, but Nottinghamshire’s Haseeb Hameed may well be the beneficiary of the England selectors’ (Chris Silverwood exclusively) paucity of options.

Hameed has seemingly benefitted from his release by Lancashire a couple of years ago, and is appearing to be a more accomplished player than the struggling youngster who looked a shadow of the highly promising teenager who excelled for England in India several years ago. Maybe Peter Moores’ energetic, enthusiastic and supportive coaching style has proved to be the difference since Hameed swapped Old Trafford for Trent Bridge as his new ‘office’.          

The 2021 India series in England will undoubtedly test the skill of England’s top order batsmen against a good quality seam bowling attack, especially if India’s leading bowlers can arrive ‘fit and firing’. But, the Ashes Tour will prove to be a different level of challenge because of the bounce experienced when batting on Australian pitches and the extra pace provided by the likes of Cummins, Starc, Hazelwood, Pattinson and co.

So, if Haseeb Hameed were to be selected for the Indian series ahead of Zak Crawley or Dom Sibley, he has the opportunity to audition for a place in England’s top order batting line up for what is historically regarded as ‘the toughest test’ for an international batsman. Can he succeed?

What will Hameed and others need to do for success to unfold?

Back Foot Excellence

The number one priority is to be a good back foot player and be able to score square of the wicket on both sides of the pitch. This approach to batting puts pressure back on to the bowlers. It forces the bowling unit to revert to more of a ‘pitch it up’ and gamble on achieving ‘nicks’ from the outside edge of the bat by encouraging batsmen to drive the ball away from their body, and bring the cordon of close catchers behind the wicket into play.

Australian fast bowlers have had a tendency in the past to ‘hit the deck hard’ and induce the outside edge as a consequence of batsmen ‘fending the ball’ away from their body because of the steep bounce and pace they have regularly proved capable of generating in previous series.

The sport’s greatest fast bowlers such as Dennis Lillee and Malcolm Marshall were able to bowl with both hostility and intelligence – even on benign surfaces – but give them a quick, bouncy pitch and a batting line up incapable of scoring consistently off the back foot, and they would run through opposition teams in double quick time.

My concern for England’s prospects in overseas conditions (whether it be trial v pace & bounce, or trial v spin) is that too few batsmen seem to have a well-developed back foot game.

Perhaps this Ashes Tour will reveal some excellent work being done ‘behind the scenes’ by the likes of Graham Thorpe and other batting coaches? Maybe thei rich experience gleaned by the likes of Thorpe and Paul Collingwood of playing top-level cricket will enable them to deliver key inputs to the lyoung batsmen in advance of the tour?

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The likes of Ollie Pope and other promising young batsmen in contention for Ashes test selection will need to be ‘on their game’  if they make the plane to Australia. Pope, and others,  will benefit from enjoying a good second half of the season in county cricket and will benefit from the all-important injection of self-confidence if they make important runs (if selected) against India.

What we do know, is that Ashes Tours tend be a denouement for the England captain if the result is a shocking defeat. And many players never recover their status and credibility from  experiencing a poor Ashes tour too.

Can we face another big inquest into the state of the English game if we are beaten comprehensively? Or, perhaps the reasons are staring people in the face today, and the administrators can’t (or refuse to) see them?

A Poor Standard of English Batsmanship

I proffer the view that the standard of England’s batting, and the standard of batting across county cricket too (they are linked), is arguably the worst it has ever been.

How has this state of affairs been able to happen?

Is it the pitches in county cricket?

Is it a surfeit of t20 cricket which has encouraged batsmen to open up their front leg and ‘swing from the hips’ to achieve the big hits?

Or is it a lack of coaching and attention to detail of the range of skills needed to develop batsmen capable of excelling on all surfaces against all types of bowlers in various countries around the world?

Raising The Standard

For a possible transformation to occur, and for England’s test team to have a plethora of top-class batsmen to select from, things in ‘the system’ will need to change.

But, I doubt they will. I say this because too many individuals are culpable for the problems which exist and many of the said individuals will be required to admit the problems of their own making. It doesn’t happen without a revolution.

A New Approach

To raise the standard, new thinking and a new approach is needed. If England would like to experience the riches in selection of a team with the standard of batting provided by Geoffrey Boycott, Colin Cowdrey, Peter May, Ken Barrington, Tom Graveney, Ted Dexter, and co, let alone Hutton, Compton or Hammond, then radical steps must be taken to ‘go back to basics’ in technical coaching.

There was a reason Barry Richards was considered a great batsman – his technical skill was outstanding. He mastered the basics of the game. Why has such an approach gone out of the modern game?

Here’s hoping the revolution in coaching and approach can occur.

Going back to go forwards is needed sometimes – especially if the current approach is taking the team and the standard of batting down ‘the wrong road’.

Back to ‘MASTERY OF THE BASICS’ would be a great start!

I live in hope….

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