England’s Unlikely Openers

A few games into the County Championship season and you tend to get an idea of the players that may be knocking down the door for England selection. With none of England’s incumbent top 3 in sparkling form, and question marks hanging over the head of Rory Burns in particular, it’s time to look at some players who are quietly chipping away in the background but who may provide a stable option in the upcoming coming Tests against New Zealand.

Surprisingly for batsmen in April, runs have been fairly easy to come by. A combination of little rain and early season frost has made the pitches hard, with many having little on offer for the bowlers after the new ball swing fades. Runs have flowed and some familiar names have provided the goods, such as youngsters Pope, with an exceptional double hundred to his name already, and Lawrence who has performed admirably so far for Essex. Even James Vince, the man all England fans want so desperately to succeed, has notched a double century, albeit against the same weak Leicester attack that Pope ran riot against.

These are the names that are often mentioned when a place in England’s top 3 could be up for grabs. Can Pope finally make it up the order, or will Lawrence be shunted up there to take the pressure off the more naturally talented Pope? Can Vince finally put the drive away and crack Test match cricket? And then there’s the much talked about Haseeb Hameed. Whenever he scores runs there’s always people putting his name forward.

But what about less fancied options? This piece is about them. Can the following unsung county stalwarts spring a surprise and make it onto the top table of red ball cricket?

#1 – Jake Libby

Libby is certainly one of the most in-form batsmen in the country. A move to New Road from Nottinghamshire at the start of the 2020 season has done wonders for the compact right-handed batsmen, where an opening partnership with Daryl Mitchell seems to have finally allowed Libby to find consistency. This can be seen by his stellar start to 2021, where he began the season by scoring 318 runs at an astonishing average of 108. He was excellent in last year’s Bob Willis Trophy too, scoring 498 at 55.

At 28 years old and a decent, albeit relatively small in comparison to others at his age, amount of 1st cricket behind him, Libby should be reaching his peak. However, there still seems to be many reasons why Libby is not on England’s immediate radar. A career average of 33 doesn’t scream of an International standard player. And whilst many in the set-up won’t admit it, playing for Worcestershire after being deemed surplus to requirements by one of the Test Match ground counties will surely count against him.

All Libby can do for now is keep churning out the runs. England selectors have shown a willingness to select players over the age of 30 recently so he still has time on his side. Despite his mountain of runs in the past 2 seasons, Jake still feels some way away from higher honours.

#2 – Chris Dent

Chris Dent has shown himself to be one of the most consistent openers on the county circuit. This consistency has once again been shown at the start of the 2021 season, where he amassed 244 runs at an average of 48 in his first three games, including an unbeaten 91 not out against a strong Surrey attack.

The main issue with Dent is not so much his inability to score runs consistently; it is his inability to back up one good year with another. In 2017 he had a good if not exceptional summer, scoring just under 900 runs at 42. However, the following year he averaged 34 – far below the standards required for England to come calling. It has been a familiar story in his last two years: in 2019 he scored over 1000 runs at 47, yet last year he managed just 170 runs at 24.

Whenever Dent seems to be building up steam in terms of England selection, a poor run of form follows. Yet, any opener in English conditions can have lean spells and a career average of 38 suggests there is talent there. At 30, he still has time left, but you feel he will need an incredible run to truly be considered for a Test cap.

#3 – Alex Davies

Alex Davies has long been vaunted by Lancashire fans as an England player in waiting, none less so than David Lloyd, who tweeted all the way back in 2018 that Alex Davies was ‘international class’.

Davies is yet to have that one massive season that saw the likes of Jennings, Duckett and more recently Dom Sibley get called up to the Test match squad. Yet, consistently scoring runs in the fluent manner that he does at the top of the order is an achievement in itself.

Lancashire fans first took notice of Davies when he scored over 900 runs at an average a tick under 40 at the age of 23. Since then, he has performed admirably, and his average has never dipped below 30 for a season. What’s more, it has steadily improved year upon year since 2018.

However, with just five centuries in 126 innings for Davies, it’s perhaps easy to understand why the now 26-year-old is not regularly mentioned for England. If you take one look at Davies’ stance, upright with a high bat-lift, it seems ideally suited for white ball cricket. It has a striking resemblance to the stance Jonny Bairstow has recently excelled with (at the expense of his Test place).

Maybe it’s this potential technical flaw that puts the selectors off the opener – although he doesn’t stay as leg-side as Bairstow and is exceptional off his pads. Or maybe it’s just his inability to knuckle down and score big runs consistently. For Davies to truly be considered, you feel he needs to have a mammoth season.

© David Morton

#4 – Alex Lees

Since the move from his boyhood club Yorkshire to Durham, Alex Lees has started to get his career back on track. After making his move permanent for the start of the 2019 campaign, Lees has scored 1465 runs at an average of 39.6 in red ball cricket. This is good going considering the fact he often opens in the North-East of England, where consistent runs are infamously hard to come by.

It is of great testament to Lees’ attitude and skill that whilst former Durham players such as Stoneman, Borthwick and Jennings moved south to improve their batting record (and thus their chances at an England call up), Lees headed north for a new challenge, and it would be hard to say that he hasn’t impressed. Many point to the huge weight placed on Lees at such a young age by Yorkshire. When a legend like Geoffrey Boycott is touting you for England when you’re just 22, then eyes will invariably be tracking your scores on a weekly basis. A fresh start at a new county has obviously helped him to escape the burden of expectation.

Alex Lees probably has the best technique of any player on this list. It is upright but with few moving parts to go wrong. However, you get the sense that such a fall from grace lives long in the memory of the selectors, and it will take a few more years to repair his reputation. Yet if he continues in his fine vein of form for Durham, then we may well see him in an England shirt sooner than you think.

#5 – Adam Lyth

Is Adam Lyth the most likely of any player on this list to earn a call up this summer? With 7 Tests already to his name, including a memorable hundred at his home ground Headingley against New Zealand, he knows what international cricket is like and how the intensity can consume you.

After the start he has made to this year’s championship, where the Whitby native is the second highest run scorer in the competition after amassing 488 runs at an average a tick under 100, you feel it is now or never for the 33-year-old to have a second coming at Test level.

Lyth is a fluent player and, being left-handed, he could be a perfect foil for someone like Dom Sibley. However, it is also that fluency that could hinder Lyth’s future selection chances. He was often caught behind during the 2015 Ashes, where he played loosely outside off-stump. An average of just 13 in that series saw him dropped. However Lyth still possesses good career average of 38, although it would be substantially better if he placed a higher price on his wicket.

When all is said and done, it’s highly likely that England will start the Tests against New Zealand with a top 3 of Burns, Sibley and Crawley. However, if one of these was to play badly against the Kiwis, it’s reassuring to know that behind the fan favourites and talented youngsters, there is a healthy crop of talented county stalwarts quietly churning out the runs. Maybe one of them can successfully step into the breach against India if required?

12 comments

  • Although you say there’s a question mark against Burns, isn’t there a bigger one against Sibley? The last time I heard, he had a long-term injury – has that been resolved?
    To be honest, I’m far from convinced by either’s technique. Could a reborn Hameed be the new hope?

    • Burns seemed to have got into bad habits outside the off stump, but the last couple of games has been looking very well organised again, and his timing through the onside in the match against Hampshire was exceptionally silky, even in a match featuring centuries from Pope and Amla. Given the likely absence of Sibley, this is not the moment to cast Burns adrift.

  • Hassan Azad of Leicestershire (average in the mid 40s) should be on this list, his partner Sam Evans is having a fine season as well, and when he qualifies for England Ricardo Vasconcelos will have to be part of the conversation.

  • It’s so refreshing that, after several years of having to listen to pundits saying “but who else is there?”, there are now plenty.
    Interesting how several players do better under a new coach/management. Maybe that’s where the standard of England’s cricket lies.

    • That’s interesting especially in relation to Muffin’s point about Hameed (who I still think potentially could top this list). I don’t think he was handled well by Lancashire (and England) but is clearly regaining his confidence now.

  • A nicely balanced article, and equally thoughtful comments. Opening can be tough, in April especially, though there have been some flat tracks, too. The selectors will have to try to factor all that in. The difference between scoring a hundred and scoring a duck is often the difference between a play-and-miss and a nick, or whether that nick is caught or dropped.

    I will comment on the three players I have seen most: Lyth, as a Yorkshire member and supporter, Hameed and Davies as a frequent Lancashire watcher.

    Lyth is a joy to watch. He is up there with Graveney and Gower and Bell for the beauty of his stroke-play. I want him to succeed so much, it hurts. (I also want to watch him playing for Yorkshire, but that’s another issue.) But he has always been a ‘streaky’ player, which is not an insult, merely an observation, that he has streaks of good form, then long periods of famine. He brings to the party also, lovely fielding, slips and outfield, and heart-on-sleeve, boyish enthusiasm.

    Little Alex Davies I saw as a teenager, long before he broke through into first class. Back then he was prone to smack big fast bowlers back over their heads, new ball and all, and remains an exciting player. He is probably also a better wicket-keeper than some whose names begin B… Certainly some Lancashire supporters prefer him to their own B. Test opener? I don’t know.

    Hameed, baby Boycs, has infuriated Lancashire supporters, and delighted them too, occasionally. Hundred in each innings of a Roses Match? The only Lanky ever to have achieved this. But even when he was at his best, getting picked for England, some of us thought he was vastly overrated, a mechanical forward defensive prod, some guts of course, not much else. He was prone to getting hit on the hands, even then, and I saw him playing for two seasons on Lancs 2s, getting hit and bullied by the opening bowlers at that level, too. If he goes to Australia, they will kill him. Very ‘ordinary’ fieldsman.

    Just an opinion, of course, based on fairly small sample size, but that’s what a forum if for, isn’t it?

  • I suspect Hameed would be a certainty if England’s next big winter tour was India and not Australia. Being a RHB is a plus, Lyon caused our LHBs all sorts of trouble last time. However the concern about Hameed has always been how he’d go against pacier bowlers on bouncy pitches. The fact that he’s doing much better at sluggish TB than he did at OT doesn’t exactly allay those fears. The only way to find out is going to be to pick him – but it is a risk and now might be too soon.

  • I think that it is far too early to consider Hameed for England yet. Let him play for Notts and see how many runs he has scored by September and then possibly consider him. John, how did Lancashire let Hameed down, they gave him every chance and Hameed let Lancs down big time.

    • David
      I didn’t say they let him down, I said that they didn’t handle him very well. I certainly think they gave him every chance in terms of playing time, but following his injury it always seemed to me he lacked confidence and Lancashire is probably not the best environment in which to recover from that. I remember one official when asked about an England recall saying that the way he was playing he would be lucky to make the County side ! That was probably true, but hardly a boost for a sensitive young player struggling with his game.

      I agree with you that it’s too early to think of an England recall and even a season in England might not provide much of a clue as to how he might handle things in Australia. He looked such an exciting prospect when he was first picked, in a position that we were finding hard to fill, and I would just love to see him fulfil that promise.

  • I’ve always been of the opinion that no matter how good a player is in the County game, the England step up is often just too much. It’s whether they have the mindset for Test Cricket, and many excellent players just do not. Often a player with less talent can prosper because they are, let’s say less fazed by the bigger pressure situation. I
    Whether Lancs handled Hemeed well or not I don’t know, but when the press labelled him as the next Boycott he went to pieces and couldn’t buy a run.
    A classic example is Mark Ramprakash, many would say one of the great batsmen, but really just did not cut it and Test level.
    I would say it may be worth trying a few of this guy’s in this article, but don’t move Pope up the order and keep Burns for now. While his technique is debatable he does have the mindset to open in Tests. If Vince could just adjust his technique I’d have him at number 3 immediately.

  • Really enjoying the debate on the article guys and appreciate the feedback.

    The point was more about players that often fly under the radar, hence the absence of Hameed. He is automatically being spoken about after his twin centuries in the last round. Many would say that is rightly so as he is an extreme talent but I wanted to focus on players that are consistent yet also consistently overlooked. I nearly added Bracey to this list but left him out for similar reasons – he has been around the Test team for some time now.

    Azad was definitely in consideration for this list (as was Slater at Nottinghamshire). However, I decided on Lyth over those two simply because of his incredible start to the CC this year. Azad had a tough 2020 campaign and despite performing well this season he has still only played 33 games despite being 27, he needs a bigger sample size in my opinion.

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