The last twelve months of Adam Lyth’s career have brought him everything a batsman could wish for – a mountain of runs, a County Championship winner’s medal, and most recently, a Wisden Cricketer of the Year award – except an England place. The early indications from the tour match against a hopeless St Kitts and Nevis invitational XI are that Jonathan Trott will partner Alastair Cook in the upcoming Test series. The Yorkshire opener could have done nothing more than he has to force his way in – including a brilliant century in front of the England captain in Abu Dhabi – but it seems that it is just not going to be enough.
Jonathan Trott’s return to the England fold following the stress-related illness that ended his Ashes tour prematurely is both welcome and deserved. He made runs for Warwickshire in county cricket, made a double-century for the England Lions, and racked up an easy fifty against the St Kitts side. Gary Ballance has usurped Trott’s old position at number three with convincing performances in the last Test summer, but Trott has found a new home against the new ball; his record, form and experience all suggest that he has the ingredients of a successful opening batsman.
Whether that makes him a better option than Lyth, a lifelong opener in first-class cricket who outscored everyone else in division one of the County Championship in 2014, remains to be seen. Whether the West Indies tour will be an adequate gauge of who should open for England in the next Ashes series is another pertinent question. Colin Graves’ description of the West Indies team England will face as “mediocre” has been criticised as disrespectful and likened by Tony Cozier to Tony Grieg’s infamous boast that he would make the West Indians “grovel”, but they are nothing of the sort – it is simply true that West Indies have faded away at a remarkably rapid rate in recent years.
That is not to say the West Indies should be taken lightly – they beat England on their last visit, and have a few fine players who could cause an upset if they all perform well – but Graves is right to say that England should win. West Indian pitches, combined with the current crop of West Indian bowlers, no longer represent the threat they once did. Spin is likely to play an important part in deciding the course of the series.
This is good news for the openers who do get the nod, presumably Cook and Trott. Both men will have a chance to guarantee their Test future with runs in this series, as neither can be certain bets to face Australia in Cardiff when the Ashes merry-go-round returns. For Lyth, it could be a frustrating few months.
If Alastair Cook weren’t England captain, his position would have to be under threat from Lyth. Even though he has 25 Test hundreds, he hasn’t recorded three figures in nearly two years, when Nick Compton was his partner. Joe Root, Michael Carberry, and Sam Robson have all been tried and ditched since that Test; two of them reached centuries of their own. In a world where Kevin Pietersen with his 23 Test hundreds can be exiled from the team, Alastair Cook should be feeling a little bit vulnerable. While his captaincy has been unfairly criticised at times, it is true that he doesn’t add enough value as captain to make his runs dispensable.
Based purely on the evidence of the past year (and how far back should we go for evidence), Lyth would score more runs than Cook this summer. And runs are what England desperately need. Lyth is comfortable against pace and spin, as well as being a world-class slip fielder, which England have missed since the retirement of Marcus Trescothick. England have got rid of Kevin Pietersen’s experience – his Test return remains a chimerical prospect; they may well feel unable to justify taking a further gamble by dropping Cook for Lyth.
Lyth might be carrying drinks on the West Indies tour, but at least he’ll have many of his Yorkshire colleagues for company: Jonny Bairstow is understudy to favoured keeper Jos Buttler, Liam Plunkett may well be left out for Chris Jordan or Mark Wood, and Adil Rashid was outbowled by James Tredwell in the practice match. While Yorkshire coach Jason Gillespie has said that six of their players making the touring squad is a positive thing for the White Rose county, if four of them don’t even get a Test, it is bound to be a little frustrating. Yorkshire have a strong academy, but he would prefer to have as many of his senior players available as aren’t playing Test cricket.
Individually, it is understandable why England want Rashid, Plunkett, Bairstow and Lyth on the tour, as back-ups and alternative options. But for Yorkshire to face the first few games of their Championship defence with a decimated first-team is a tough proposition. Rashid might get in ahead of Tredwell on county form; Plunkett might find a space for himself at eight or nine, his pace might secure him a spot. But all signs point to Adam Lyth – Wisden cricketer of the year, Yorkshire’s hero, County Champion – being left out of the first Test. His admirers, and England’s supporters, may be left wondering “What if…”