The England men’s Test team has a problem. Well, it has several: a gallery of injured bowlers, an inconsistent middle order and the ever-looming prospect of a pace attack without James Anderson. Just to name a few. Yet one issue stands out among the rest, a conundrum so taxing that it’s had selectors scratching their heads for more than a decade.
Who should open the batting. More accurately, who can open the batting.
The selectors have looked far and wide in search of a sturdy opening pair. Trying no less than eighteen top order bats in the decade since the retirement of Sir Andrew Strauss. Yet, in those ten years, and the four since Sir Alastair Cook’s retirement, all but none have failed. There’s been flashes of potential, the odd dogged century or impressive shot offering just a glimmer of hope that this time, this batter is the real deal. Then the inevitable happens. Said batter runs out of form, runs out of runs and is discarded.
The time is right to try something new. A fresh face raised in the T20 era, not constrained by the attitudes of yesteryear. A batter built for ‘Bazball’.
Having been at Sussex since the age of ten, Alistair Orr signed his first professional contract in only April of last year. After making his debut that June, his maiden first-class century followed only a month later, an assured 119 against Kent. The runs continued to flow throughout the 2021 season, Orr finishing the county championship with 548 runs at an average of 39.14. Particularly impressive was the manner in which Orr scored his runs: fluent, attacking, a season reeking with potential.
Yet, it’s what Ali’s achieved this year that really caught the eye, scoring three exquisite hundreds and surpassing the thousand run mark for the first time. Winning Sussex’s young player of the year award, the cherry on top for Orr came in the season’s final match. Against Glamorgan, the young opener smashed an astonishing 198 off 174 balls. A knock of flair and barbarity, Ali hit eighteen fours and ten sixes in his three and a half hours at the crease.
Orr finally departed in the unluckiest of fashions. Ajaz Patel deflected a Tom Haines drive onto the centurion’s stumps. Sadly, the left-hander was out of his ground, thus falling an agonising two runs from a maiden first-class double ton.
Heavy Praise inevitably followed. Fans and Pundits alike praised the eloquent and barbaric nature of Orr’s performance. Elizabeth Ammon of The Times even crowned him ‘The Next Big Thing’.
There’s no small portion of competition for Ali Orr. New England coach Brendan McCullum seems stubborn in his backing of Zak Crawley. The first-class game boasts a plethora of experienced openers. Ben Compton and Keaton Jennings led the county championship this season, the latter averaging a remarkable 72.52. Then there’s the familiar wagon wheel of batters who never quite cracked test cricket: Burns, Sibley, Hameed…the list is extensive.
So, what does Orr boast that the tried and tested openers of county cricket lack?
Youth. And all that comes with it.
A batter free from worry about his wicket, Orr’s positive style of play reflects the mindset of a young man playing cricket for enjoyment. Batting with fluency and flair. His aforementioned 198 against Glamorgan came at an astounding strike rate of 113.79. Such attacking intent has rarely been seen at the top for England. And it may just be what Brendan McCullum’s after, having encouraged the incumbent openers to simply ‘play more shots’.
Sadly, there was also no place on the plane to Pakistan for Ali. The selectors instead favoured the in-form Keaton Jennings, Zak Crawley too retaining his place amongst mountains of criticism. After Pakistan, England next play test cricket in New Zealand this February, then onto the Ashes.
Should the Jennings experiment fail, and the dire form of Zak Crawley continue, England will be in desperate need of a new opener. Ali Orr is the bold choice. Inexperienced but exciting. The selectors must roll the dice and give youth a chance.
It’s not merely red ball cricket where Ali has an international future. In August, he made history. Demolishing a tired Somerset attack to record Sussex’s highest ever List-A score of 206 off just 161 balls. A showcase in clean hitting, the monstrous innings included 18 fours and 11 sixes, Orr crashing the ball to all parts of the Taunton ground.
Early in his innings, a snorting bouncer from Kasey Aldridge struck the Sussex batter. The physio was dispatched, and the usual concussion check carried out.
“The physio came on and asked me a few questions, including where we were. I told him ‘Lovely sunny Taunton’, so we had a smile and all was well”.
All was well. Orr completed the year’s one-day cup averaging an imposing 58.44. After topping their group, Sussex crashed out in the semis, yet Ali’s splendid season won’t be forgotten in a hurry.
Although he’ll play no part in the upcoming Australian series, opportunity may arise a little later in the winter. England face South Africa in a three match ODI series beginning this January. With a World Cup fast approaching and Jason Roy in dire form, white ball coach Matthew Mott may look to this series to experiment at the top. Orr would be a wildcard. Yet, with his outstanding record in fifty over cricket, it surely won’t be too long before we see Ali dispatching the white ball for England.