Alastair Cook’s retirement means England are largely stuck with what they’ve got
England may have won this summer’s Test series against India in comfortable fashion but they head to Sri Lanka on their next tour with some serious questions to answer, specifically in the top three of the batting order.
Alastair Cook signed off from Test cricket in some style with a superb 147 in the second innings of his final match. English cricket’s record run-scorer owes his country absolutely nothing after a stellar career, but his retirement has left them in a very sticky situation at the top of the order.
Ever since Andrew Strauss retired in 2012, it has been an on-going struggle to find an opening partner for Cook, and England are no closer to achieving that than they were six years ago.
The current incumbent of that role is Keaton Jennings who looks absolutely nothing like the answer to England’s problems. The 26-year-old has played all five tests against India this summer and mustered a high score of 42 over his 10 innings.
Jennings started his international career with near perfection, scoring 112 on debut in Mumbai and then a half-century in his second Test in Chennai. However, 18 innings have gone by since then and the opener has not reached 50 again. It might not be the end of Jennings’ Test career just yet, but he has already had a lot more chances than most and he will be very lucky to be afforded some more.
If Cook was not exiting stage right, Jennings would certainly be out of the side, but it may well be the lack of two decent new openers that gives the Lancashire man a reprieve.
There is also uncertainty at number three, where Moeen Ali is currently incumbent. England started the India series with Joe Root at three, batting the first six innings of the series there, but he returned to number four, allowing Ali to step in for the final three innings.
Moeen has not been entirely convincing, but did manage a 50 in the final Test which might just keep him in that role, but it is not a sure-fire thing.
After that, things become a little more settled. Root will do everything he can to stay at his favoured number four, and seen as he is the captain then he will probably get what he wants. Then the likes of Johnny Bairstow, Ben Stokes and Jos Buttler are guaranteed their places in the team. But how are England going to solve their problems in the top three?
There is one part of the equation that is very simple to answer. One man that is definitely coming into the team is Rory Burns.
The Surrey captain and opener is the leading run-scorer in Division One of the Country Championship, notching over 1,000 with time to spare. At the time of writing he has three centuries and is averaging over 65 for the season without missing a match all season.
At 28-years-old he is in his prime and his performances this year have been so superior to any other opener in the County Championship, it is a given that Burns will make his Test debut in Sri Lanka.
The options for who will partner Burns at the top of the order are scarce and will probably not get England fans too excited.
Joe Denly is one, the Kent opener who has a small amount of international experience having played a handful of ODIs and T20s nearly 10 years ago. Denly is now 32-years-old and playing his County Championship cricket in Division Two, but he has been in good form this season, scoring three centuries and averaging around 40.
It is not a long-term option, nor is it one that will set the world on fire, but it is a reasonably solid one for now. He has vast First Class experience and also is a handy leg-spinner which does nothing to hurt his case in Sri Lanka.
Another possibility is James Vince, who is not an opener by trade, but would jump at the opportunity to give it a go for a return to the Test side. Vince has played 13 Tests for England and did not perform, managing an average of under 25 from 22 innings. However, he has been in great form in the County Championship this season, averaging nearly 58 and likely to hit the four-figure mark in terms of runs.
It would be a bold move by the selectors to bring him back and put him in an alien position, but with options scarce and Vince in the runs, they might be forced into an unusual decision.
Such is the paucity of talent for openers in English cricket that these are the only realistic options available from outside of the current squad. Which makes Jennings the most likely option to continue at the top of the order and partner Burns in Sri Lanka.
For an opener, Jennings is good against spin and this is at least one reason to leave him in there, even if his scores have not been good enough to warrant continued selection. He also has the advantage of experience, even if it has not really been good experience. It is very rare indeed that selectors will throw two brand new openers into a Test together and it will seem the safer option to retain Jennings, even if they have doubts about his quality – which they must do.
Another option available to England is to promote someone from down the order to open, but that does not seem likely at all. The only two possible candidates for that role would be Moeen Ali and Joe Root, both of whom have done it before, but neither have had their best time at the top of the order. Root would be the better option and he averages over 41 as a Test opener, but he doesn’t even like moving up to three, so the idea of him opening seems unlikely, even if he would definitely be the best quality choice England could make.
Moeen has opened twice before but averages just 16.5 in that position and it would seem that England fully intend to keep him at three. He may not have done it much for England but that is where Moeen bats for Worcestershire and he has been superb there for them. He has not looked great in the three innings there against India, but one half-century will probably be enough to retain his place.
Ali could open, with Vince at three and Root at four, leaving at least two of those three men in their natural positions, but that also seems unlikely. Asking Ali to bowl dozens of overs in Sri Lanka and to open the batting would be quite the imposition.
What England would most like to see happen is Cook to change his mind and be on that plane to Sri Lanka, but they can forget that possibility. This means the best option appears, depressingly, to be Keaton Jennings.
Can the selectors justify picking a Division Two 32-year-old debutant in Denly? Not quite. Does Vince deserve a crack at a position he doesn’t bat after failing in his normal position consistently? No. Does Jennings deserve to keep his place in the team? No, not really, but without a convincing replacement, he is going to have to stay, for now.
Jennings can be given the first two Tests in Sri Lanka to save his international career. He has shown he can bat in Asia and he might just be able to rediscover some form away from the pressure of a home crowd.
Unfortunately for England, there is no fool-proof Plan B available to fix their batting issues. Burns is the man to take over from Cook, but with no one else stepping forward to replace Jennings, he will remain. Moeen may not be the right number three, but Vince is not the option and Root doesn’t want to bat there, so Moeen will stay. Olllie Pope isn’t ready to go in there, neither is Worcestershire’s Joe Clarke, so for now it is Ali.
There will be plenty of soul searching in English cricket over the coming weeks and months, but we are left with the same set of players we have now. England will throw in Jack Leach as an additional spinner in Sri Lanka (possibly in place of Stuart Broad) and Burns will arrive, but otherwise the team will look the same as it did at the end of the India series.
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September 11th, 2018 by Simon A
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