Friday, 11 March 2016

England’s Continuing Search for a Consistent Opening Batsman

by Oliver Wright




Since the retirement of Alastair Cook’s seemingly ever-present test match opening partner, Andrew Strauss in 2012, England has struggled to replace the consistency he produced at the top of the order. Together, he and Cook managed to help England rise to the number 1 spot in the test rankings, averaging an extremely respectable 42.75 per partnership. Yet this dependable start to the innings has not been reciprocated by any of the 8 openers tested since, because although there have been fleeting moments of promise, such as Adam Lyth’s century against New Zealand, this has not been maintained for a lengthy period, causing the selectors to axe each player before they reached the 10 game mark.

The most recent example of this has been the frequent collapses of England’s top order in their latest test tour in South Africa. Where, although they scraped a 2-1 series win against a weakened South African line up (absentees including Dale Steyn, arguably the best bowler in the world), the matches were often saved by heroic batting from the explosive middle order. The middle order championed the aggressive and independent new philosophy galvanised by Trevor Bayliss (England’s new head coach), which encourages the players to think for themselves. This however, has seemingly been found difficult by some of the higher order players, who are apparently struggling to reconcile this new style with their natural way of playing. As a result, I believe there to be many suitable solutions to prevent the predictable capitulation at the top of the order.
           
Alex Hales

The 27 year-old Nottinghamshire opener is the current opening partner of Alastair Cook, chosen by the selectors in an attempt change England’s traditional approach to the start of the innings. Coming off the back of a surprisingly successful season in the County Championship, and having already established himself as a destructive batsman in the shorter formats of the international game, Hales seemed to have shown that he should be given the chance to prove himself in the upcoming tour in South Africa as a replacement for Adam Lyth. Unfortunately, he was generally dominated by the South African bowling attack, highlighting his difficulty with a consistent, swinging ball around his off stump. In 20 and 50 over cricket, Hales could get away with this issue through brute force and a lack of slips, however in test cricket it was proven that he couldn’t, ending the series with an average of 17.00.

Although this is a serious technical issue in need of correcting, it is possible that they will continue with him. If so, I hope that rather than trying to contradict his naturally attacking instincts by emulating past, traditional openers, he takes the game to the opposition. This is because Hales is clearly never going to survive in test cricket with a defensive attitude. It isn’t the way he knows how to play, and it would result in the continuation of his poor test form; he would be far more comfortable sticking to his strengths, demonstrated by his re-found form leading him to being the leading run-scorer in the subsequent one-day series. If he were to successfully transfer his usual attacking intent and confidence into the test arena, it would contrast the more defensive style of Alastair Cook, in turn placing more pressure on the opposing bowlers early on in the innings. Although unorthodox, it has been proven to work by the rise of Australia’s David Warner, the world’s most effective opening batsman in the world since his test debut in 2011 (averaging 50.64). He made a similar change to Hales, progressing to the test stage through white ball cricket.
           
Nick Compton

England’s current number 3 made his test match debut against India in the 2012-13 tour, following which he averaged a respectable 31.93 throughout a 9 match period in the side. His traditional and gritty way of batting served him well, making him seem fairly comfortable at the top of the order, and when he was dropped for Joe Root, he had two hundreds against New Zealand to his name. As a result, Compton was arguably hard-done-by. He had partnered Cook well; their classic techniques were similarly dogged and this gave England a strong, fighting quality up front. Even when reinstated as number 3 for the recent South Africa tour he was fairly successful, most notably with his innings saving 85 off 236 in the first test, perhaps showing that he did possess the typical qualities of an English opening batsman after all, as throughout history, they have shown courageous and stubborn characteristics through facing torrid conditions. This surely is what Nick Compton did, in recovering from the horrible disappointment of being excluded from the side, by returning in such a capable and durable way. Asking the question whether dropping Compton before he really had the opportunity to establish himself in the line-up was the correct decision?

Although the board of selectors admittedly hasn’t given any of the chosen batsmen much of a chance to cement themselves in the team (the 9 matches given to Compton being the most any of Strauss’ successors managed), none of them have yet to take grasp the opportunity with gusto. There has been the occasional spark of promise, but nothing that has lasted longer than an innings. If England truly are to replace Strauss, they need to search the county game for young potential, as Cook made his debut aged only 21 and he has become one of the most successful batsman in recent times. If they do take a gamble on a young batsman showing talent, and the next Alastair Cook is found, then England cricket will be in safe hands for another great period of time. If this fails, then every county opener will have a chance in the fight for selection, just as they have for the last 4 years.



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