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England must stop papering over the cracks with big runs the priority

With places still up for grabs in England’s top-order, Derek Pringle looks at the options the selectors have in order to put runs back on the board…

England’s Test series win in South Africa was an achievement to be trumpeted from the Lord’s grand stand, though not much of that victory could be attributed to their specialist batsmen. Joe Root aside, the rest of the top five struggled, which has given the selectors the challenge of making a few changes ahead of the summer series against Sri Lanka and Pakistan.

With Alastair Cook a fixture in the side as both captain and opener, the choice for them, broadly, is between those batsmen considered to have Test match temperament, like Gary Ballance, Ian Bell, Alex Lees and Sam Robson and those like Alex Hales, Jason Roy and James Vince, who bring the aggression of the white-ball arena into the red.

When viewed in those terms, the decision, as England look for an opener as well as a number three and a five, looks ideological – one group aiming to soak up the pressure imparted by bowlers with solid temperament and technique, the other trying to place it back on the leather-flingers by aggressive strokeplay.

With Test matches becoming more compressed and with many concluded within four days, there is a growing case to utilise the dynamic strokeplay of the latter group. Also, the removal of the toss in county cricket, should the visiting team wish to field first, has helped the aggressors state their case more readily by improving the pitches.

In fact, the drastic reduction in tricky surfaces has provided a double benefit giving the shot-makers a truer strip on which to play their shots, while minimising the challenging conditions in which technicians used to flourish at this time of the year.

Let’s begin with the opening slot alongside Cook, himself under par against South Africa last winter but now churning out hundreds for Essex in Division Two of the County Championship.  After an ill-fated experiment which saw Moeen Ali open with Cook against Pakistan during the early part of last winter, it is Hales who is the man in possession, following four Tests in South Africa. Against the likes of Morne Morkel and the irrepressible Kagiso Rabada, it proved a tough assignment and one Hales did not rise to, making 136 runs in eight innings at an average of 17.

Almost as telling during that series was his strike-rate of 38.9. Low for an accumulator let alone a biffer such as him; it suggests he overthought the role of being a ‘Test’ match opener. As one coach recently confided, Hales has worked out where his strengths and weaknesses lie, technically, but as yet lacks the confidence to take the intent he shows in white-ball cricket into Tests.

With today’s selectors advocating the philosophy that “it is better to give a player one chance too many than one too few”, Hales, 27, will probably start the summer against Sri Lanka, though opting for rest when he could have been racking up runs for Nottinghamshire in the County Championship seems a curious way to sway the doubters. The current match against Yorkshire, in which he made two 30s, is his first of the season and, according to some reports, it showed.

His greatest challenge could come from Robson, who had a taste of being Cook’s partner two years ago against Sri Lanka and India. Like Hales, Robson’s problems stem mainly from his approach, though he did suffer from the technical glitch of planting his front foot early and then steering the bat towards the ball, a fault that still sees him bowled more often than is acceptable for a top-order batsman.

Strong off his legs, and with good discipline at leaving balls just outside off-stump, Robson, 27, can put away the bad ball but is otherwise too fixated on survival, or was during his seven Tests in which he made one hundred and one fifty in 11 innings. Top-order Test batsmen need to be able to score off half-decent balls as well and not to view them with the deep suspicion that Robson does. Three outside contenders for the role are Mark Stoneman, Alex Lees, Yorkshire’s white-ball captain, and his county partner Adam Lyth, who was dropped after struggling badly against Australia last year.

Stoneman has been Durham’s rock at the head of the order for the past few seasons and while his first-class average of 31.6 is nothing to get excited about, he passed 1,000 runs in successive seasons as an opener, something almost unheard of at Durham where pitches have historically favoured ball over bat.

Well built, but compact at the crease, Lees can become too static while Lyth flirts with balls outside off-stump like Jack Nicholson does with flighty girls, though with more perilous consequences.

England’s selectors will also be looking to fill numbers three and five in the batting order, the first because Nick Compton looks too overwrought for international cricket (he even looks hurried and jittery against county bowlers), and the second because of James Taylor’s shocking and sudden retirement from all cricket following the diagnosis of a rare and dangerous heart condition.

One theory has Joe Root promoted to three with Ballance coming back into the side at four and then one of Vince or Roy at five or six, depending on where Ben Stokes and Jonny Bairstow want to bat.

Cook is thought to be an admirer of Ballance, and while the latter was undone by some fine left-arm swing bowling last summer first from Trent Boult then from the Mitchells, Starc and Johnson, his Test record – over 1,194 runs from 15 matches at an average of 47.7 –  is excellent given he does not pull or hook especially well.

Anyway, England captains, although not on the selection panel any more, generally get their way.

Roy and Vince would be the bolder choices with Vince, who does possess a good pull shot, having already caught the eye this season with a fine hundred against Yorkshire, the most potent county bowling attack in the country.

Roy had a good World T20 in India with shots as impetuous as they were brilliant, but may suffer due to the travails Eoin Morgan suffered when he struggled to transfer his white-ball brilliance into the red-ball game.

Others to consider in that role are Tom Westley, who has enjoyed a superb start to the season with three first-class hundreds to date for Essex.

Westley, who is a superb player off his legs, struggled during the winter with the England Lions.

Also Essex are in the second division where bowling attacks are more underpowered than in the first, two things noted by those who count.

Then there is Bell, professing hunger once more and in the runs for Warwickshire.

A fine player, England lost a series with him in the side against Pakistan and then won without him against South Africa – reason enough you might argue not to go back to him now.

If I was sole selector, I’d bring back Jos Buttler behind the stumps and shift Bairstow up to five to play as a specialist batsman.

That would allow a top eight of Cook, Hales (I’d stick with him for a few more Tests to see if he can adjust), Vince, Root, Bairstow, Stokes, Buttler and Moeen Ali, with Stuart Broad, James Anderson and Steven Finn to bring up the rear.

That line-up may not guarantee Tests last five days, but it would be exciting to watch and would – providing the bowlers pull their weight with the ball – win many more matches than it lost.

This piece originally featured in The Cricket Paper, Friday May 6 2016

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