Wednesday, 28 October 2015

What next?

Wednesday, 28 October 2015
It wasn't quite the great escape England had dreamed of. Though Root, Bairstow, and Buttler had all fallen before lunch, and Stokes shortly afterwards, England were still battling it out with seven overs to go. The lower order became heroes - Rashid (61 from 172) and Wood (29 from 95) facing the most balls by a ninth wicket pair in the fourth innings of a test match, before Wood fell with 11.2 overs still to go. But after all that hard work, one late mistake from Rashid saw it all come to nothing. The shot will haunt him, but you can't criticise the man in his second test who batted the longest of England's batsman. It goes down as a heavy defeat, but it wasn't a surrender.

Now, with one match left to be played, England will be considering their options. England's batsmen are struggling to convince, and it was the collapse on the third morning that really cost them the match. They dug in on the final day, but even so it was numbers eight and ten who shone the most. The most likely change, one looking close to certain, would be for Taylor to come in for Buttler, with Bairstow taking on the gloves. There's no doubt of Buttler's talent and that he'll be important for years to come, but he's struggled so much since the second half of the summer. His confidence seems lost, and his natural game has disappeared. And the problem with wicketkeepers is that when the form disappears so much with the bat, mistakes can creep in with the gloves as well and it soon becomes difficult to justify a place. I do feel for him, but it will be hard to argue if this is the outcome. And with his immense importance to the limited overs teams, I feel that maybe the World Twenty20 should be looked upon as the priority.

Another option would be to bring Hales into the side, potentially making a second change and leaving out Ian Bell, the other man under huge pressure. Moeen Ali was always going to be a makeshift option as opener, and though he did a decent job in the first test, here he just wasn't looking the part. His second innings dismissal, going after the ball when there's a match to be saved, did not reflect well on him. I don't though want to be too critical of Moeen - he's being given such a difficult role when having no prior first class experience of the position. Really England are still struggling to work out where he fits best into the batting line up. At the moment, they might look stronger with a genuine opener there in Hales; the problem is that Hales has done very little recently to set the world alight. But if he's on the tour, then he has to be in contention - because otherwise why is he there? I would though expect England to stick with Moeen Ali for the next test, but his temporary role looks unlikely to be made permanent.

England will also be hoping for that slice of luck at the very beginning of the match. These are the kind of pitches you want to be batting first on - and not be batting last - but so far Misbah has won both of the tosses for Pakistan. It's the tiny moment you can do nothing about, but yet it can make a world of difference: all going to plan, the spinners would have the benefit of bowling with runs on the board - and a better chance to capitalise on the early strides the seamers have often made. Containment is not the natural game of Moeen or Rashid, and it's something they haven't been successful at - both having economy rates comfortably above four runs per over. But when the pressure of the scoreboard has been in play, the wickets have come more freely - just think of that final day in Abu Dhabi. The opportunity to bowl on a final day pitch - all going well, of course - would be such a boost for a spin twins, giving them a stage to shine and a license to attack.

England aren't quite out of this series yet. Pakistan will be favourites for the final match, sure, and absolutely deserved to take the series lead after that second test. They have the better bowling attack and better batting lineup for success in these conditions, and their whole team has contributed in a way that England's hasn't. With the bat it feels like there's always someone to score the runs - Asad Shafiq, Shoaib Malik, Younis Khan, and Misbah having all made centuries, and Mohammad Hafeez coming within a whisker with 98. And with the ball there's Wahab Riaz, who made the second test Pakistan's with some devastating bowling on day three; and Yasir Shah, causing havoc on his return from injury. Somewhat unsung too, are the opening bowler Imran Khan and the spinner Zulfiqar Babar, who has bowled far more overs than anyone else, including the small matter of 42 maidens.

But still it shouldn't be all doom and gloom for England. There's still a match to go, a match to get something out of this series, and there are some good points to pull strength from. There's the way the first test burst into life on the final day, thanks to the monumental innings of Alastair Cook and the debutant Rashid showing just how dangerous he could be. There's the way they came so close to getting something from this second test, the lower order showing a lot of character in refusing to roll over and die. Against Australia at Lord's, the end came much, much sooner. There's the way the pace bowlers have contributed: Wood being more of a hit in the second test; Stokes having a four wicket haul in the first; and Anderson having great figures for someone considered most effective in the swing-friendly conditions of home (Broad though has been a blip, with just two wickets). With the bat Joe Root's golden run is going on and on, and Cook looks in the mood to play those long, long innings just like his first (injury permitting). If they had a bit more support, then who knows, things might start falling magically into place.

As ever, it would be a tall ask, but I still don't think it's completely out of the question. England's flaws are clear to see, but even so I've seen enough glimmers to give me some hope that maybe they could get something out of this tour - though Pakistan will be the clear favourites. Both matches have gone the distance with more than one result possible in those final overs, two thrilling finales to show the series is full of life. Here's hoping for a third.

Sunday, 25 October 2015

The battle is on

Sunday, 25 October 2015
England enter the fifth day of the second test facing a battle to survive. Seven wickets stand between Pakistan and victory, with England set a nominal target of 491 runs. Already the captain has been dismissed, troubled by injury. Gone too is his opening partner, Moeen Ali, and the man at first drop, Ian Bell. It's a tough final day ahead.

It will be a tough challenge, but maybe they could do it and survive. Joe Root has already dug in with an overnight score of 59*, and maybe he could continue his one-man mission for England well into the final day. His hot streak from the summer doesn't seem to be ending just yet, and he's shown an ability to shape matches by himself before. Jonny Bairstow is coming off the summer of his life, and though he's still yet to really deliver at test level, he's shown some signs of form on this tour so far. Ben Stokes is a fighter. Jos Buttler must be due a score soon. Adil Rashid is a good player of spin, and having a man with ten first class centuries batting at number eight can only be a good thing in a situation like this. Broad and Wood too are far from being mugs with the bat in hand, and James Anderson is after all a test saving hero - Cardiff, 2009, will be clung on to for as long as possible. England saved a match with six wickets to spare on the final day in New Zealand in 2013, and came so close to doing so with five to spare against Sri Lanka last year.

But probably the more likely scenario is the other one. Pakistan have the bowling attack to cause problems. Wahab Riaz, the left armer, bowling quickly and constantly looking a threat. Yasir Shah bowling legspin on a fifth day pitch. Both coming off the back of four wickets in the first innings. Root can't score runs every innings, and left arm quicks have often been his undoing. Bairstow remains unproven in test matches, his bottom hand is too often taking over, and he's not looked at ease against spin. Stokes had a fifty in the last match, but otherwise has struggled for runs; while Buttler's place in the side is on the line. Rashid is in only his second test match, and Broad, Wood, and Anderson aren't batsmen to rely upon.

The first innings though was the one that got them into trouble. It was another dramatic collapse, from 206/3 to 242 all out. Seven wickets, 36 runs. Root got out, and the whole team seemed to follow - too many falling with rash shots. It's been a problem throughout the year - who gets the runs when Cook and Root are out? Others have had their moments - and Stokes especially has played some brilliant innings this year - but there's not anyone else at the moment who fills you with the confidence that they will deliver on a consistent basis.

Meanwhile, the pressure mounts on those who aren't delivering. I'm a massive fan of Ian Bell, and will always maintain that he is one of my absolute favourite players to watch when on song, but at times in this series he has been a struggle to watch. Off the back of a poor summer, the calls for his drop and the whispers surrounding his future have got louder and louder. He has, at least, been grinding out runs on this tour - a score of 63 in the first innings that wasn't fluent, but that he scored nonetheless, and here he made 46 before a late dismissal. It might just be enough to save him, as consistency in selection so often wins out.

But with Buttler it may be a different story. Changing a wicketkeeper is always a big call, and especially when Bairstow hasn't made the mountains of runs that would really push for the decision to be made. But waiting in the wings is James Taylor, a man up there with Root as one of England's best players of spin bowling, who made the runs in the ODIs against Australia and showed his form in the warm up matches. Last year, everything Buttler touched seemed to turn to gold - that fantastic ODI century against Sri Lanka followed by immediate success in the test team. This year his form has dipped, and since hitting a century in the ODIs against New Zealand he's barely had a significant innings and looks bereft of confidence. A dropped catch and a chance going between him and first slip haven't helped his cause either. Being an ever-present in all three formats for England, I personally would have rested him from the ODI series against Australia from the start - a proper period of rest ahead of a tough winter schedule, having a chance to recharge. Perhaps he could then have finished off the season with Lancashire to get his eye in again before going on tour. Instead it seemed a bit of a half-measure, an afterthought, and one that made it just look like he was dropped from the side.

Of course, we shouldn't be getting ahead of ourselves with this England team, heaping the expectations on when many of them are still newcomers to cricket in this part of the world. Before the tour, I was expecting defeat - and just hoping the response wouldn't be too harsh on them when it happened. It's not that I'm excessively pessimistic, just that away wins at the moment are like gold dust, and Pakistan have made the UAE their fortress. Many teams have travelled to the UAE and come back with nothing, and many England teams have faced Pakistan away and come back with nothing. England's final day performance in the first test just really got the hopes up. And it's the frustration that a batting collapse cost them so badly again.

Pakistan have of course been excellent. Misbah with a century in the first innings and a fifty in the second, Younis Khan with a fifty in the first and a century in the second (passing 9000 test runs in the process); several others chipping in with fifties along the way. They've put the pressure of the scoreboard on England, batted them out of the game, whilst the bowlers have delivered too.

Now the challenge for England is to survive. It's not an impossible task, but it's one they will really have to fight for.

Sunday, 18 October 2015

A burst of life

Sunday, 18 October 2015
Test cricket can, at times, be rather ridiculous. Suddenly, as the sun set in Abu Dhabi, England were on the charge, seeking a dramatic win almost out of nowhere. Adil Rashid had become a star with a five wicket haul in his first game, after in the first innings recording the worst bowling figures by a debutant. England were chasing down a total of 99 runs, their opponent not overs, but the light and the time. Four days of cricket petering out into a draw, and suddenly a finish that left all England supporters wishing there had just been that little bit more.

Really, it hadn't been a great match up until those final sessions. It's not taking anything away from the performances of the players, it's just that it was hard to play any thrilling cricket on a surface like that. There were some brilliant individual performances, innings of patience and endurance from Shoaib Malik (245) and Alastair Cook (263), bedrocks of two giant team scores. The bowlers did all they could, but there was very little they could really do. Spinners bowled and bowled with so little reward - Zulfiqar Babar bowling 72 overs in England's first innings for just one wicket, coming in his 69th; while Malik was the first spinner to take a wicket in the match, in the 185th over of England's innings. 

But on the fifth day, the pitch had started to spin. Anderson took two wickets in the third over of Pakistan's second innings, and then there was an outside chance that England could snatch victory. They had got themselves into the game the only way they could: grind out another huge score with the bat to take the lead, and then take a couple of early wickets to put the pressure on the opposition. Hafeez was run out, taking a single to Ben Stokes. And then Adil Rashid took his first test wicket, and they kept coming after that. He was getting drift in the air, and turn on the pitch. His final three wickets were almost carbon copies: edges to James Anderson at first slip, the first of the three an excellent low, one-handed take. Moeen Ali was taking wickets at the other end too, and perhaps the most important - the captain Misbah, bowled when foolishly trying to hit him down the ground. England's spin twins were doing their job, bowling out the opposition on a fifth day pitch.

It's hard to describe just how delighted I am for Adil Rashid. I've often been disappointed by the way England have handled him, from his first steps around the set-up to even this year. Often he went on tours as part of a learning experience, not expected to play, when he would perhaps have been better served just playing somewhere, learning his game by bowling and bowling. There was this year in the Caribbean, when he should have played whilst Moeen Ali was struggling for fitness, just not trusted by coach or captain. Things have changed with Trevor Bayliss, someone who has been an advocate of Rashid straight away. And Cook, too, made a statement with his actions - Rashid was brought on ahead of Moeen Ali, a show of confidence and faith in Rashid that he seemed to lack before. Rashid has improved as well: where before his mentality has often been a concern, in this match he showed a lot of character to come back with such results after having a horrible first outing. So often he's been teetering on the edge of the England team, not quite convincing enough to stake a full claim, but now he has shown he can really compete at this level. 

England had 99 runs to chase in around twenty overs, but with the light the issue most pressing. The batting order was reshuffled, in coming Jos Buttler to open with Moeen Ali, Root up to three, Stokes up to four. The pinch hitters though couldn't quite come off. Misbah made the right move of opening with spin - taking all the pace off the ball and making it difficult to get it away to the boundary. With no fielding restrictions, the boundaries could be covered with ease; only those perfectly timed and perfectly placed could make it there. Despite 33* from Joe Root, and a partnership with Jonny Bairstow that included a 17-run over off Wahab Riaz and a lot of very hard running, England just couldn't quite get there in time. 

A draw felt frustrating, an end with an if only. But after Pakistan racked up 500 in their first innings, it would have been the best result I could have hoped for. After England responded with their own total, it was the only result I could have seen coming. And at the start of the match, it was a result I would certainly have been happy with. They might not have snatched that win in the end, but to get themselves in with that chance was an achievement in itself. The next match rolls around quickly, starting on Thursday in Dubai. England can go with their heads held high. 

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Test and toil

Thursday, 15 October 2015
It would be fair to say that this match hasn't been the most thrilling example of test cricket. It has been a grind: a test of players' perseverance in the heat, of bowlers who toil away on a pitch with so little in it for both pace bowlers and spinners. Already, Pakistan have amassed a giant total: 523/8, spearheaded by 245 from Shoaib Malik, playing his first test for five years. Only cramp and fatigue could beat him, the hours at the crease finally taking their toll. Alongside Asad Shafiq (107) and Mohammad Hafeez (95) the damage was done, the batsmen in for the long haul while the opposition were left to be punished in the sun.

England though are setting themselves up for a similar response. So often the pressure of the scoreboard can see a side instantly crumble when they get their turn with the bat, the psychological effect of a large total and fatigue from so many overs in the field taking their effect. So far, at least, it has not been the case. England's new opening pair were successful on their first outing, making a rare century stand on the first attempt. Moeen might not have been as fluent as he can be - but bowling thirty overs will do that for you. The captain though led the way, playing a typical, calm, Alastair Cook innings - and just like Shoaib Malik, looking in it for the long haul. Rarely was he in any trouble, making his way to 168* at the end of day three. On the way, he passed 1000 runs for the calendar year as well. The troubles of the previous two years look firmly in the past.

For Ian Bell though, it felt like his problems were only continuing. Already on the first day he had dropped two catches - drops that proved highly costly, being of Hafeez and Shafiq. Somewhere in the background, the questions and rumours about his future in the side were getting louder. Lingering as well were the memories of the 2012 tour, where Bell made just 51 runs in six innings. The innings was a battle. The scoring rate was slow as he struggled to find his method of scoring runs against the spinner. Against Zulfiqar Babar, his strike rate was just eleven. But gradually things did improve. He found a way to rotate the strike, and in one innings managed to beat his total from 2012 - 63 runs, before falling to Wahab Riaz at the end of the day. His best form might still be far away, but this innings should have provided an important psychological boost.

For England's bowlers though, it was nothing but hard work. Ben Stokes did eventually end up with the very respectable figures of 4/57, though they mostly fell towards the end of the innings as a declaration approached (and the less said about his over of off-spin, the better). All the wickets fell to pace, as well as the two dropped catches and another almost-wicket, denied as Broad's foot overstepped the line. It's not the first time England have been denied by a no-ball this year, and it's a frustrating issue: firstly, as the umpires aren't calling many of the no-balls being bowled - often just checking when the wicket falls; but mostly because England are overstepping that line too often. The umpires should definitely do more, but it's an issue the bowlers need to resolve the most - because they are the ones who get punished.

But for the spinners, there was no reward at all. Adil Rashid finally made his test debut, a debut I have long been shouting for, but it hasn't been one to remember at all. With 0/163, Rashid is now the holder of a very unwanted record - the worst bowling figures by a test debutant. Bryce McGain, the fellow legspinner Rashid 'beat' on the list, never played another test - though Rashid will surely play the remainder of the series, and hopefully on pitches more receptive to any sort of bowling. When it all goes right, he provides a real threat - a valuable asset to a bowling attack, adding that element of mystery. As it was, Pakistan were comfortable. Rashid went at 4.79 an over, with no maidens, and Moeen Ali went at 4.03 with just two; Pakistan could not be contained. Maybe it might have gone better for Rashid had he been given that opportunity in the Caribbean at the start of the year; certainly it still looks like a missed chance, with him now making his debut on a pitch where any bowler would suffer. For now his debut is another chapter in the book of England's struggles with legspinners.

Really though, no bowler would be able to find much success on a pitch like this. While I still wouldn't rule out a dramatic England collapse (it is something they excel at, after all), the most likely result in two days time looks to be a draw. The bowlers are doing an admirable job keeping up the hard work - a special mention must also go to Wahab Riaz, who looked capable of making something happen if sometimes erratic. But right now there's little more they can do than keep up the hard work.

Thursday, 8 October 2015

10 Years Since Edgbaston: Part 3

Thursday, 8 October 2015
Rarely has a tour been as much of a disaster as the 2013/14 Ashes whitewash. Rarely has a team crumbled so quickly and so completely, and especially after being convincing victors mere months before. But that's what happened. England were in the game after the first day of the first test. By the end of day two they were out of it, and would never get back in the series again.

Mitchell Johnson, the object of ridicule when England last visited, was unstoppable. 37 wickets at 13.97. England had no answer, no solution to his short sharp bursts of pure pace. Ryan Harris was just as important - 22 wickets at 19.31. The batsmen were dominant too: Haddin causing chaos in the lower order; Warner and Rogers doing the damage at the top; Clarke, Smith, and Watson all making centuries too.

England, meanwhile, were in complete and utter disarray. The team that had brought so much success in the previous four years was crumbling around them. Trott sadly went home after a single match with a stress related illness. Swann retired after three matches after averaging 80 with the ball. Prior was dropped after three matches, Bresnan played two, Tremlett one. There were echoes of the whitewash seven years earlier, where players so successful before now appeared as shadows of themselves. Conflict was brewing off the field too: grumblings about Swann abandoning the team halfway through, as well as never ending issues around Pietersen. About the only ray of hope to come out of the series was the emergence of Ben Stokes, a player who seemed to relish a fight, and showed his all round ability with a five wicket haul and England's only century of the series.

England entered a rebuilding stage again, and again with Peter Moores at the helm. The summer, though a mixed bag to begin with, ended brightly. Gary Ballance had been a surprise choice to fill the number three spot after Trott, with limited prior experience of the position, but looked the part with three centuries. Joe Root had put his winter behind him and led the way with the bat. Jos Buttler looked to be settling into test cricket straight away, and Liam Plunkett found success on his return to the international scene. In Moeen Ali England had found both a classy batsman and their first choice spinner. India had fallen away dramatically in the second half of the series, but at last for England, things were looking up.

But a return to form for the test side couldn't hide the problems facing the one day team. Part of the reason the Ashes had been moved a year earlier was to help England's preparation for the World Cup, rather than having it come at the end of a gruelling test tour – a bid to give England the best chance possible. But by the time of the World Cup it had come to nothing. Alastair Cook was sacked as captain with just weeks to go, and really shouldn't have been given the job in the first place – a much better player when the test team is his sole focus. England never knew their best side, preparing for the tournament one way and changing it up as soon as they got there. The talent was certainly in the team, but for whatever reason they were playing within themselves. It was the same old story, the plot England have followed at World Cups for years. They failed to make it past the group, not beating a single test nation along the way, looking outdated and left behind as other nations charged ahead. After a drawn test series against a West Indies side described as 'mediocre' by new ECB chairman Colin Graves, Peter Moores was out of the England job again.

Yet this summer, from the most unfancied of positions, England won the Ashes. With the help of Trevor Bayliss, Paul Farbrace, and even Brendon McCullum, England look like they're enjoying their cricket again. Results have been up and down – when they lose, they can lose very badly – but there's a sense of hope that prevails for the future. In all formats, players are given the freedom to express themselves in a way they seemed unable to before. In an age where players can appear too media-trained, the players' personalities are really starting to come through; gone is the often insular regime of Flower. And there have been the results on the pitch. A draw against New Zealand with a fantastic performance at Lord's, and then an ODI series victory where England reached new heights with the bat in hand. The Ashes victory topping it all off, an unexpected triumph as bowlers ran wild and skittled Australian batsmen. The following ODI series was lost, but taking the world champions to a deciding match was still an achievement after the horrors of the winter. Importantly, it felt like England were enjoying their cricket again, and it seemed that the public were enjoying it again too.

And so, ten years have passed since Edgbaston, and where are we now? Victors of a close Ashes series on the eve of one of cricket's toughest tests, playing Pakistan away from home – just as they were ten years before. But where last time it might have been and end of the story, this time it feels like the beginning. Players are at the early stages of their test careers, tasting the first fruits of their successes, and blending well with an experienced spine of the side. And there are the type of players who can capture people's imagination, just like 2005. An inspiring all rounder, capable of being a match winner with bat or ball. Batsmen with flair, who look like they can make things happen when they come to the crease. Bowlers capable of producing magic spells, of getting on top of the opposition and running away with the match. Could this team inspire a nation again, and come near the heights of the previous ten years? There is a lot still to be done. Time will have to be the judge.

But on the field right now, the future would appear bright. Off the field though, there can be just as many obstacles.

10 Years Since Edgbaston: Part 1, Part 2, Part 4, Part 5

Friday, 2 October 2015

Trouble at the top

Friday, 2 October 2015
I'm sure that thousands upon thousands of words have been devoted to the problem of England's partner for Alastair Cook at the top the innings. It's been one of the most consistent issues in the England test team since the retirement of Andrew Strauss - and even before, if you consider his poor form in his final year in the side. Three years later, and England are still trying to solve it.

The latest man to fall is Adam Lyth. It's completely expected: despite hitting a century in his second test against New Zealand, in the Ashes he managed just 115 runs at 12.77. But he's just another to add to the list of players given a go in the role, and then taken out of it shortly after. The first was Nick Compton, and with some success. He had did a decent job on the tour to India, a tough place for any player to make their debut, and then hit two centuries in New Zealand. But a lack of runs on return to England, a low strike rate (34.68), and the ascendancy of Joe Root counted against him. Since it's just looked like his face didn't fit in a dressing room where cliques had taken hold. Looking back now with the openers' merry-go-round in full flow, maybe England should have stuck with him. His stats aren't amazing, but it was a decent enough start, and heading into an Ashes series consistency would be no bad thing.

At the time though, I was all for Joe Root. He opened for his county, he's an exciting player, and at only 22 he could be the long term option. Of all the openers tested, he has the highest average. In his second match in the job he scored 180, helping set up a massive victory at Lord's. Problem solved? Well in ten innings, he only passed twenty on two other occasions. When Michael Carberry hit form in the warm-ups ahead of the return Ashes in Australia, a switch was made again. He became the third man to partner Cook in 2013. Carberry made several starts, and was the second highest run scorer for England on their doomed tour - numbers wise, not a most impressive feat, but he did more than the others. His dropping had echoes of Compton's as talk of trouble in the dressing room became louder. He featured briefly in the one day side in the summer that followed, but when the line was drawn under the Ashes and a 'new era' begun under Peter Moores, Carberry was on the other side of the line.

Sam Robson came in - a young player hotly tipped over the previous few years, his England qualification keenly anticipated. He too started strongly with a century in his second test and a fifty in his third, but the runs had dried up by the end of the summer. Again and again he was exposed around his off stump; again England found themselves wanting a new opener. Jonathan Trott returned to the side, but it sadly wasn't to be and at the end of the tour he retired from international cricket. And so the job came to Lyth - another batsman who had made plenty of runs for his county, just like those before him - but still not able to fill the role on the international stage.

So why has the spot not been filled? There's no easy answer. Consistency and confidence in selection is one issue: though all have been given some sort of run in the side, they've still had the pressure of playing for their place - knowing that England can still quickly turn to the next man if they don't do well. It's the sort of pressure that mounts higher every time someone new is brought in - can this man be the one to stick? You might argue that pressure is simply part of being a test cricketer, but it's still not a great environment to be starting out in. There's also the situation players have been faced with: Root, Carberry and Lyth all given their chances on the eve of an Ashes series, the series with the most hype, attention, and pressure English players are likely to face. Many players have struggled in their first forays in Ashes cricket - Cook, Bell, and Anderson may be Ashes heroes now but all found it tough in their first efforts. Might it have been different for Lyth if he had been given more of a chance to bed in, being given the series against the West Indies rather than just two tests against New Zealand? We'll never know. The dressing room environment hasn't always been the best either - it certainly seemed so with Compton and Carberry, though with a new era and influx of new players, that doesn't appear the case so much now.

Maybe the answer is for England to pick one player, and stick with them for an extended period of time. Not just one summer - give them at least a year, see how they go against various attacks and conditions, on different surfaces, and in different match situations. Then make the decision to stick or twist. The trouble is, when the top order is repeatedly failing it's easy to make a change in personnel to bring a change in results. And often the first man in can be the first man out - literally, in this case. At least, for some, the door is not yet closed - while the position isn't sewn up, enough runs can get someone like Lyth or Robson back into contention, and it gives those on the county circuit plenty to fight for.

And so, it will be Alex Hales or Moeen Ali to take on the opener's role in the UAE. With Moeen, it could well be a temporary fix, a move to allow Adil Rashid in to the side as second spinner before Hales takes the role in South Africa; though if successful in the role initially, he might be given the opportunity to really make it his own. Certainly number eight is low in the order for a player of his class, simply caught in a time when England are blessed with all rounders, but without first class experience of the role he would be more of a makeshift option. Hales, meanwhile, has certainly made the weight of first class runs for Nottinghamshire this year and the last, and has proven himself a performer on the international stage. His century against Sri Lanka in the World Twenty20 showed his ability against spin too, something crucial if given the opportunity in the UAE. However, in the recent ODI series against Australia he looked a different player - bereft of confidence and a means to make runs, which might count against him as the series quickly approaches. It'll be an interesting call.
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