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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