Derek Pringle looks at the contenders for England’s number three spot, and highlights two alternatives for the selectors
Every decade or so, England appear to be in a quandary over their number three, and so it is again following the serial failures of Nick Compton, the latest to fill the role.
Back in the Eighties, it was a position filled by David Gower, Mike Gatting, Chris Tavare and Derek Randall. At least they were the main occupants though a myriad of others like Brian Rose, Kim Barnett, Bill Athey, Allan Lamb, Wayne Larkins, Bob Woolmer, Martyn Moxon and, at the end of the decade, Michael Atherton, all had a go as well.
The position has scarcely oozed stability since, at least not until Jonathan Trott filled the position for 46 of his 52 Tests between 2009-15 and averaged just over 45 there.
Trott apart, most have considered the position jinxed, something Compton, who began his England career as an opener, is probably feeling now. Mind you, given the general cricketing rule that three is where a team’s best batsman should reside, he shouldn’t be surprised that it has not worked out.
Although Trevor Bayliss has danced around the subject of Compton being dropped, in a recent interview, speculation has been rife as to who will fill the role for the series against Pakistan, with Scott Borthwick the leading contender.
A lower-order batsman better known for his wrist-spin when he began at Durham a decade ago, Borthwick has already played one Test for England in the 2013/14 humiliation at the Sydney Cricket Ground, which saw Australia clinch their second Ashes whitewash in six years. Such was England’s disarray it was a match in which their baggage handler could have got a game had he not been nursing a sore hamstring. Borthwick, called up from Sydney Grade cricket, batted at eight and nine, scored five runs, and took four wickets.
A fidgety batsman, Borthwick has calmed many of his excesses to become a fine top-order player, capable of getting runs on challenging pitches.
He even bats down the order in T20 cricket, a sure sign that convention has overtaken him.
Much of this progress has been planned. Instead of going on recent Lions tours, the England Performance Programme sent him to Sri Lanka one winter to play in domestic cricket and Wellington, New Zealand the next. He thrived in both and was voted Wellington’s outstanding four-day cricketer despite playing only half the games.
Players like Borthwick, 26, have risen up the order from batting obscurity before. Bob Woolmer began as a seamer who batted at eight or nine for Kent, but ended up in the top four for England from where he made two of his three Test hundreds. But it remains unusual.
Borthwick’s wrist-spin would be attractive too, adding variety to an attack which while potent in pace, lacks reliability in the spin department. Borthwick would not add to that, but he would allow Moeen Ali to relax more knowing that all spin options do not lie with him.
The one thing against Borthwick, whom Bayliss has yet to see bat, is that he may still play too many shots for England’s taste. Part of the reason the selectors have persisted with Compton is because they felt they already had enough bold, risk-taking stroke-players in the order, and needed another blocker alongside Alastair Cook.
For that reason, Gary Ballance, organised and calm, who plays balls on their merit, is more the kind of player they are after. Except that Ballance seems to be suffering from more issues than Compton at present and is having a shocker for Yorkshire, with only one score over 50 in the last six weeks.
Tom Westley, from Essex, is, like Borthwick, having a good season for his county. He exudes a calmness at the crease, knows his game pretty well but suffers from that blight of scoring his first-class runs in the second division. He might have been higher up the pecking order if he’d impressed more on his outings with England Lions, but a modest time last winter against Pakistan ‘A’, where he possibly placed to much expectation on himself, means the selectors have yet to be convinced.
There are those who feel Ian Bell is still too good a batsman at 34 to be discarded from international cricket. They may be right, but with England winning two series without him, including South Africa away, there will be an equal amount saying why should we go back to him? Anyway, only an avalanche of runs for Warwickshire would have brought him back into contention and that has yet to occur.
As ever, Cook and Bayliss will largely get the team they want, though with Bayliss in particular having never seen many of the players under discussion, he will need to be guided by the selectors. Yet with two of them, Mick Newell and Angus Fraser, both holding positions at clubs in the top division, you wonder how much those in the second division will get a look in?
One option they might have given serious consideration to, had James Vince looked the part against Sri Lanka, would have been to shift him to three, promote Jonny Bairstow to five, and have Jos Buttler return to eight and take the gloves. But Vince struggled against what was a modest attack by Test standards, though hopefully his travails stem from big-stage nerves, which can be overcome.
The white-ball cricket coming up against Sri Lanka might help him, if he can get a game. Due to the get-on-with-it nature of the formats, Vince will have to throw his hands at the ball – this could then free his mind, which was frozen by bad judgments in the Tests.
The only other possibility along similar lines, but a gamble nonetheless, would be to bring Surrey’s Ben Foakes in to do the keeping and bat at eight, and shift Vince and Bairstow up the order as suggested above.
Foakes, 23, has been keeping well and would surely be a shoo-in for one of the keeping spots on the winter tours to Bangladesh and India. He is also a fine batsman, with potential to get even better. If he played, and Vince bucked his ideas up, England would be stronger than they are now with the possibility of being even stronger in the future as those two bed in and improve.
That would be the bold call, with Borthwick, and no changes elsewhere, the more likely.
This piece originally featured in The Cricket Paper, Friday June 17 2016
Subscribe to the digital edition of The Cricket Paper here