You can trace England’s top order troubles back to retirement of Andrew Strauss in 2012. Ever since, England have struggled to find consistency in their opening pair and their top order woes were compounded by the end of Jonathan Trott’s Test career as a Test match number three in Australia in 2013/14. The same tour, too, ended Alastair Cook’s run as an opener of world class renown. As we move into 2020, have England finally got the top order options needed to progress their Test standing? We look at the players in contention.
The Surrey skipper amassed over 1,000 First Class runs for five consecutive seasons before getting the nod to play for England, debuting in Sri Lanka in 2018 as a replacement for Cook, who had retired the previous summer. Burns endured a challenging start to life in an England shirt, but cemented his place with a gritty 133 against Australia in last summer’s Ashes contest.
Another century followed in Hamilton, leaving Burn with an average of 33.75 from his 15 Tests to date. His progress, however, has been curtailed by an ankle injury which also leaves the door open for someone else to stake their claim to the opening berth…
The major short-term (at least) beneficiary of Burns’s injury, the 21-year-old now has an opportunity to make one of the opening spots his own. His debut during the second Test in New Zealand also arose owing to injury, on that occasion to Jos Buttler.
Crawley doesn’t have major First Class pedigree, with an average of 30.28 and only three centuries to his name, but the England selectors have seen something that they like in him which suggests that he may be in and around the England squad for years to come. He appears confident in his own abilities and was happy to take on South Africa’s stellar seam attack when called upon. He is also an option to bat at three for England.
Another from the Surrey conveyor belt, Sibley seems to have been around for all eternity, having debuted for Surrey aged just 17. He played with some of the game’s elite at the Oval, counting Hashim Amla, Kevin Pietersen and Kumar Sangakkara amongst his former teammates.
It took a move to Warwickshire to really ignite Sibley’s career, however, as he sought to establish himself as a regular first-teamer at one of England’s bigger counties. The 2017 move threatened to turn sour at one point, but Sibley adjusted his game at the back end of 2018 and hasn’t stopped scoring runs since, with 1,394 during the 2019 County season making calls for his England selection deafening. He has repaid the faith with a century in just his fourth Test. The opening spot is his for the foreseeable.
England endured a torrid tour of India in 2016 but looked, at the time, to have unearthed a couple of top order gems, one of whom was Jennings. A century on debut hinted at a glittering career to come, a further half century doing nothing to dampen the optimism. Shortcomings against pace, however, soon rendered Jennings unselectable. He has been in-out in-out for a short while now, but looks set to feature on England’s upcoming tour of Sri Lanka, not least because of his prowess against spin – his only other innings of note for England was a century in Sri Lanka in 2018. Still only aged 27, there is plenty of time for Jennings yet.
An international career some 10 years apart, Denly’s Test debut in West Indies in 2019 came a decade after his ODI debut in Ireland. Now aged 33, Denly is seemingly under constant pressure, something his habit of getting starts then getting out will do nothing to allay.
Currently stationed at three, however, Denly has least shown grit and grim determination. He’s happy to hang around and following on from a period of England’s middle order being constantly exposed to the new ball, that is a trait which the England management are clearly satisfied with. For now. He has six half centuries but opportunity for a maiden Test century won’t last forever.
Bairstow’s Test career has somewhat veered off course following a stellar 2016, having first lost the wicket keeping gloves, then his place in England’s Test XI. Whilst it would appear sensible to allow Bairstow some time away from the international limelight to work on his game back at Yorkshire, sensible isn’t always the way with England and his all-round purpose is useful as a backup option in the Test squad.
Bairstow’s last century also came as a specialist batsman batting at three in Sri Lanka in 2018. He backed that up with a half century in the same position on the subsequent tour of West Indies in 2019 but was then handed the gloves back and asked to bat seven. There’s nothing like consistency and this England set up has had nothing like consistency.
Ah, Hameed. The prodigal son who, it is hoped, will rediscover himself at Nottinghamshire and return to the England fold in order to fulfil the immense promise he once showed. Hameed scored heavily for Lancashire in the 2016 County Championship and earned a call-up for England’s tour of India, where he debuted alongside Cook. During the third Test, however, Hameed was struck on the hand, leaving it broken and paving the way for Jennings to make his mark.
Those three Tests have taken on a romantic air in the eyes of England fans who long for a stoic opener. Two half centuries and a Test average of 43.80 suggested that, once that hand was healed, Hameed would walk back into the England side. Alas, t’was not to be and Hameed has barely scored a run since, those low hands resulting in another lengthy injury lay-off which didn’t help matters, to the extent that Lancashire released him last season. Still only aged 22, there is plenty of time for Hameed, but he needs things to work out for him at Notts if his is not to be a career unfulfilled.
Whilst England don’t have the top order pedigree they possessed when Cook, Strauss and Trott were filling the top three places in the batting order, there is reason to be optimistic for England fans. Sibley looks a patient, play-it-my-way type of batsman who can lay solid foundations for his more adventurous colleagues. He and Burns should form a long-term alliance which could bear fruit atop the order, with the short-term solution of Denly filling in just behind them. Thereafter, who knows? Crawley could well be the long-term solution at three, although more leftfield solutions could of course surface. Will Hameed be one of those? If he finds some form at Notts over the next couple of seasons he’ll still only be 24, with the prospect of a lengthy international career of his own before him.
It all gives reason to be cautiously optimistic for England. The seeds have been sewn, they just need to hope that they grow.
By Miles Reucroft