With the County Championship already decided and the International summer almost behind us, attention seems squarely focused on the upcoming Ashes series in Australia. Of all the permutations and considerations ahead of a series of this magnitude, the makeup of England’s batting order ahead of the first Test remains the key concern.
Following a summer of Test cricket numbers two, three and five remain questionable in the batting order and as history suggests, a tour of Australia is not the place to be if your batting order is fragile. There have already been enough positive signs about Mark Stoneman to suggest that he certainly deserves to start the series as Alastair Cook’s opening partner. The ability to face up to some of Australia’s quick opening bowlers remains to be seen but his opening forays into International cricket have looked promising.
Whilst this writer was highly dubious of Dawid Malan’s credentials for initial selection in the summer, a couple of gritty knocks and his ability to play off the back foot should see him selected for the opener, too. With the only other option being moving Jonny Bairstow up the order and bringing in a specialist keeper the spot looks certain to be Malan’s, unless England pick a utility batsman who could provide cover as an opener and a powerful middle order batsman. If only they had someone of that ilk?
It would be hard to deny that Alex Hales’ Test career to date has been troublesome. Whilst he has blossomed in the limited overs formats at International level his issues around off stump and when to play and when not to play saw his dropped a year ago and his return to the side hasn’t really been talked about. However, after a double hundred for his county batting at number five the speculation surrounding Hales’ place in the squad has intensified. In many ways it seems the most logical decision in that he can cover a few roles and is a superb fielder. Perhaps in a sense it might also not put as much pressure on some of the players already under pressure as he wouldn’t be a direct replacement for anyone. His inclusion just becomes more logical the more you think about it.
So, the main issue remains, the elephant in the room if you will, over who bats at number three? Tom Westley looked less and less assured as the summer went on. Despite scoring a few runs to secure the West Indies series at Lord’s it should be remembered that the West Indies were out on their feet by that point and had lost Kemar Roach to injury. The runs and the not out helped his overall average for the series a little but that should not mask the problems he will encounter again if he plays in Australia.
One of the first things you are taught as a youngster learning the game is about getting your head in line with the ball. It allows you to line up the ball and then with your hands manipulate in which direction or with how much power the ball goes. From watching Westley in both series this summer his reliance on playing around his front pad and often playing with half a blade will get him into trouble against better bowlers on bouncier, faster wickets. For those with the patience and the skill to pitch it straight and move it away from the right hander Westley looks the ideal player to bowl to. If he can straighten up and aim through mid-on a little more, then he stands a better chance.
The Australian fast bowlers will already be licking their lips at the prospect of an English bunny and unless his technique changes completely before Australia it seems unlikely he will succeed. England can ill afford a lame duck in the line-up and Westley is certainly the biggest concern ahead of November’s opener.
Unless the management can persuade Joe Root to bat at three then it looks likely that it will be a huge problem this winter. Stoneman should certainly start the series and Malan should get first crack with Hales as first reserve. Who covers at three remains the biggest concern if Westley gets found out early on. With Andrew Strauss championing his selectors in the face of understandable criticism in recent weeks, the jury is certainly out.
By Andy Hunter