England’s batting let them down in the first Test against Pakistan at Lord’s. That much was obvious to everyone, not least captain and coach, Alastair Cook and Trevor Bayliss, who both lamented naïve batting and regretful shots in the immediate aftermath of the defeat. Yet, such a performance has been coming.
If stability breeds success, then England have steadfastly ignored that old cliché. Whilst Cook has strolled out to open with Alex Hales for eight consecutive Tests now – a remarkably consistent opening partnership given England’s recent tinkering atop the order – there has been incessant reshuffling further down.
At Lord’s, Joe Root, James Vince and Gary Ballance were all moved to unfamiliar positions at three, four and five. None convinced.
Vince has had four unsuccessful Test appearances now and could use some runs. He will surely feature in the remaining three Tests of this Pakistan series, such is Bayliss’s propensity to give players one game too many rather than one too few, but his shortage of runs has been stirred into a plethora of dropped catches in the slips. It’s a toxic cocktail.
Ballance was a surprise recall for this series. His name entered the equation in the minds of the masses and media only after he had been recalled. To read the press, it looked certain that Jos Buttler would come back into the fold.
This only serves to highlight one thing; that Bayliss has a preference for working with players that he knows.
With that in mind, and with creeping uncertainty surrounding England’s batting, The Cricket Blog looks at those players waiting in the wings for their opportunity to represent England.
On the scene
The noise around Jos Buttler’s Test recall was somewhat surprising given that he hasn’t played a First Class game since being dropped after England’s second Test in the UAE last year. That he is a talented player, there is absolutely no doubt. His white ball form has been scintillating and he has a range of shots that have raised the bar of English batting.
A Test average of 30, however, suggests a player who has moved towards ‘white ball specialist’ territory. No shame in that, either. England have yearned for an ODI spearhead for years. They’ve now got one. Like Cook trying to nurdle his way through an ODI career, it might be a mistake to allow Buttler to try and blast his way through a Test career.
Similarly, Jason Roy has been a revelation in England’s ODI side. There have been murmurs surrounding a Test call up, but Roy has endured a pretty wretched First Class season for Surrey, returning 330 runs at 25.38, with no centuries and only two half-centuries. Bayliss, however, has worked closely with him.
Scott Borthwick hasn’t worked with Bayliss, but was hotly tipped to get a call up against Pakistan following three remarkably consistent seasons batting at three for Durham. This season he has 677 runs at 56.41 with three centuries, but as the talk of a call up gathered momentum following Nick Compton’s loss of form in an England shirt, Borthwick’s runs dried up. He has one Test cap to his name already and can bowl useful leg spin. He could be an attractive proposition for England’s tour of India as a result.
Ballance’s recall has firmly suggested that the door is closed to no man and Sam Robson could feature again for England. His seven Tests in 2014 were largely underwhelming but he has enjoyed a resurgent season at Middlesex with 719 runs at 59.91 with three centuries. He’s only recently turned 27, so he must be on the radar of the England selectors with his best years ahead of him.
Batting alongside Borthwick at Durham is Keaton Jennings who is having a breakthrough season, topping the Division One run scoring charts with 951 runs at 79.25 with five hundreds. A previous South Africa U19 captain, Jennings’s mother hails from Sunderland and the 24 year old is close to completing his four year qualification period that will make him eligible for selection by England. It’s too soon for a call right now, but another stellar season in 2017 and his selection is almost inevitable.
The other name enjoying a breakthrough season in Division One is Nick Gubbins. The Middlesex batsman has 767 runs at 63.91 with two centuries in 2016. At 22, however, he’s in a similar position to Jennings, whereby he will be expected to prove his consistency by scoring heavily again in 2017.
Somerset middle order stalwart, James Hildreth can consider himself very unlucky never to have got the England call; we’ve mentioned him before. At 31, he is enjoying a fine 2016 with 756 runs at 58.15 with three centuries. A First Class average of 44.75 from 213 games highlights his consistency down the years. Where other contenders lack in experience, Hildreth has it in spades. But is it too late as England pursue a youthful selection policy? Surely not, his experience would add ballast to a flaky looking middle order.
You may have noticed that all of the above players ply their trade in Division One. Such is the growing gulf in class between Division One and Division Two, that the England selectors have tended to favour those excelling in the upper division.
As a result, the likes of Sam Northeast and Daniel Bell-Drummond at Kent, Chris Dent at Gloucestershire, Tom Westley at Essex and Ben Duckett at Northamptonshire are unlikely to receive imminent call ups, even though Essex, Gloucestershire and Kent are in the hunt for promotion and Duckett smashed 164* for England Lions against Pakistan A this week.
If they can play pivotal roles in the promotions of their sides and score the runs that secure the Division One status, however, then they too will be knocking on the England door.
By Miles Reucroft