England’s Opening Batsman Conundrum

Opening batsman. On no other slot in the team is there greater scrutiny and in turn greater pressure. In no other position is the line between ‘positive’ and ‘reckless’ shot selection so finely, and so strictly, drawn. And in no other aspect of England’s current situation has the long-term need of the team been so overlooked in favour of the short-term fix. Never mind building a Brave New World, the current lack of foresight feels a lot like Groundhog Day.

England’s Opening Batsman Conundrum

Since the retirement of Andrew Strauss in 2012, Alastair Cook has been matched with seven opening partners. The sixth, Adam Lyth, is currently cooling his heels at home having not been selected for the winter touring party after a disappointing Ashes.

Of all the contenders so far, though, it is he who has perhaps had most cause to curse his luck, starting from the moment his debut was delayed by England’s efforts to reintegrate Jonathan Trott into the Test side last winter. The human angle to that story was irresistible, but the attempt to rebrand Trott as an opener and then persist with him in the West Indies despite his immediate and obvious discomfort in the role denied Lyth his early chance to bed into the team.

Here was the best opener produced by the County system, a bedrock of Yorkshire’s 2014 Championship winning side, overlooked in favour of a player without any meaningful experience in an opening role and then cast aside one summer later after a poor series against the best bowling attack in world cricket. Have England missed a trick here, a chance to show faith in their decision making, their system and, most importantly, in the man deemed the best prospect in the role only a few short months ago? I fear they have.

And so to the UAE, with Moeen Ali the seventh to try his hand. Moeen is a first-rate cricketer, with his off-spin ever more potent and his batting style, alternately languid and belligerent, ideally suited to the counter-attacking role he so successfully filled at number eight this past summer. However, although his performance in the first Test against Pakistan this week was solid enough, no-one is seriously suggesting that his current occupation of the opening slot will be anything other than temporary – his current over-eagerness to chase outside off stump, coupled with a still unconquered susceptibility to the short ball, will most likely put paid to any prospect of him continuing in the role for the long-term – and for the trip to South Africa he is likely to stand aside.

Alex Hales, then, is lined up as the eighth cab off the rank, a specialist opener potentially in the David Warner mould and with a Championship double century to boot. But despite being odds-on to open in South Africa and beyond it seems almost certain that, like Lyth before him, he will spend this current tour on the sidelines, the knock-on effects of the need to find room for Adil Rashid being felt to the very top of the order.

Rashid must play in the UAE, of course, but it is in the long-term interests of the team that both players be included – most likely by choosing between Jos Buttler and Jonny Bairstow. Effectively telling Hales he is not trusted enough to play on the spinning pitches of the UAE can only increase the pressure on him when he does finally get his chance. Giving him the nod now would send a powerful signal to a young player who thrives on confidence as well as allowing Moeen to go back down the order to his most destructive position.

The larger issue is inescapable, too. The position of opener needs to be settled for the future, not just for this tour. The greatest teams in history have been built on the consistency of their opening partnerships, whether with bat or with ball. England have to get this right and whoever they finally settle on needs to be given the support and time to make the transition from the domestic to the international game properly. And crucially, unlike Adam Lyth and those before him, he must be allowed the time to play his way back from failure if necessary. Even if it were to mean a little short term pain, the long-term gain will be well worth it.