It’s About Time

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The trust and persistence placed in Moeen Ali is how England should approach their top-order conundrum. After a decade of success, the demand for instantaneous results has cut off England’s nose to spite their face. Selection policy has become impatient and short sighted.

Alastair Cook has gone through 11 opening partners since the retirement of Andrew Strauss in 2012. And England have tried several number 3s without committing to one. Yet in the midst of chaos, Moeen Ali has emerged as a reliable and increasingly threatening allrounder.

It’s easy to reflect on Mo’s 25 wickets and over 252 runs against South Africa with rose tinted glasses. After all, it hasn’t always been plain sailing for Mo. He has batted in every position from one to nine, only scored one century in his first 20 Tests, yet he averaged more than 50 in 2016. Could this be because the selectors stuck with him come what may?

England stuck with Moeen because they believed in him. They wanted Mo because of the potential he offered. Ali has been an investment for England. His form has been changeable but the approach was right.

The question is, why haven’t England invested as much in their top order batsmen? Instead they’ve been tried and trashed. Quickly.

It ultimately lies in trust. England have picked openers because of county form, with the hope they’d continue to score runs at the highest level. But the selectors have forgotten that it can take time to adapt to test cricket. Instant success is rare. Just look at Shai Hope. He averaged in the teens before this series but now looks sublime.

Keaton Jennings, like Andrew Strauss and Alastair Cook, scored a century on debut. Sam Robson and Adam Lyth also enjoyed early success before being binned. Tom Westley might suffer a similar fate if he doesn’t score runs at Lord’s.

Although all these batsmen looked frail in their last appearances, they looked no more frail than Alastair Cook before the 2010/11 Ashes. Cook clearly had technical problems and there were murmurings of him being dropped.

What’s more, Andrew Strauss looked extremely frail back in 2012, when his average of 33 was propped up by two 100s against a weak West Indies side (without those tons, he was averaging 22.84.)

England kept faith with Cook and Strauss because they were established players and their faces fit. The management trusted them. Unfortunately for the likes of Jennings, Robson, and Lyth, they never benefitted from the same trust.

Within five or six Tests of his debut hundred, there were calls to drop Jennings and replace him with with yet another cab-off-the-rank from county cricket with, no-doubt, an impressive domestic record.

It was the same with Nick Compton. He looked excellent in New Zealand but soon found himself under pressure after a few bad games. Why didn’t England back him?

Obviously all the discarded players needed to work on their games. But who doesn’t? Something went wrong when Compton was dropped prematurely and the selectors have been making the same mistake time after time.

Top order batsmen should be seen as investments and not easily thrown away. The selectors should make a decision, stick with one man, trust him to come good eventually, and actually trust their initial judgement. At the moment they’re just fumbling around and desperately hoping that their next punt pays off.

The policy of picking one batsmen after another must change. Otherwise another ten or so county performers will come and go whilst having their careers dented by the selection merry-go-round. Let’s hope that Mark Stoneman isn’t the next casualty.

Jack Mendel

11 comments

  • Not sure you can compare Moeen Ali with an opener or a No 3. In some respects Mo is a luxury player, was never lauded as a top spinner (still isn’t) and comes it too far down the order for a player of his calibre.

    To come in on a green wicket, cloudy day with the new ball nipping around for No’s 1 and 3 is a totally different prospect. That said, totally agree about not giving the likes of Compton, Carberry, Robson, Lyth etc more time to prove one way or another that they are test quality.

  • I think the problem has been picking players who have a flawed technique and are thus unsuited to Test cricket (Jennings and Westley for example). Stoneman looks much sounder, so I’m optimistic that he will make the grade. He does seem to have an unlucky tendency to attract unplayable balls, though!

    • I quite agree. It’s one thing not giving the likes of Compton, Robson and Carbs long enough to adjust to Test cricket but quite another to identify a glaring technical weakness in a player and drop him because of it with the implication that if he goes back to his county and works on it (more difficult to do these days) the selectors will look again.
      Best example of that I can recall is Gooch.

  • Top order batsmen have prerequisites for success that go beyond talent. It’s no good trying established players who have basic technical flaws. Think from the viewpoint of a bowler and what they would least like to come up against. Maybe include a bowling coach in batting education.
    What needs to happen is players need to be groomed properly from teenage for the rigours of test cricket, not just the white ball game. I always thought this was the purpose of the county cricket. There must be young players in every county who fit the bill for this. Temperamentally youngsters will always have issues of concentration and ‘grinding it out’ for the team, this can be worked on.
    I’m not suggesting a cricketing equivalent of football’s Lillishall, where youngsters are ‘groomed’ for international success, as this has merely produced a bunch of overrated pima-donna’s. Each county should be rewarded financially for producing players promising enough to be offered specialist coaching from the ECB and the players given some sort of financial reward for being restricted from exposure to 20-20 whilst this is going on, so they are less likely to fall into the sort of bad habits we have seen from established players this summer.
    It is the judgement of when to play and when not to play that is most critical and this can only be reliably induced when a player is learning the game. Once established it is so much more difficult to break established habits.
    The oldies used to say of test cricket; restrict you strokeplay to between mid off and mid on till you get used to the conditions. Once you have the pace and bounce of the wicket then you can start throwing your hands at the ball. Until then let the ball come to you and play it under your nose. It is more important to stay in at the top of the order and see off the new ball than to score runs.

  • Agree with all these comment’s, but if you are a mature player with a flawed technique it won’t matter how many games you play because you won’t make it a Test level. Cook, and to a lesser extent Stoneman play little T20 and consequently have greater powers of concentration needed at this level.

    I’m afraid, if they go, Westley, Malan,Jennings and probably Hameed will be dead men walking in Australia.

  • I thought Robson (who averaged 30) and Lyth (who played mainly vs Australia and made 100 vs NZ) were both a bit unlucky but you can’t stick with players forever. If 7 Tests isn’t enough, how may is? It’s worth remembering that international standard bowlers identify flaws in batsmen quickly and are good enough to exploit them, so if you persist in picking someone it’s more likely they’ll continue to be dismissed cheaply and suffer serious mental torment in the process. Better to send them back to their counties to work on their flaws, although sadly the scheduling these days makes this increasingly difficult. Interestingly, of all the players who have partnered Cook in the last few years, not one has gone back to county cricket and scored a sackful of runs so as to force a recall. Compton did get another chance, but it was barely merited.

  • Agree with the above, I think 7 tests is enough. Especially when you see they have glaring technical faults. Go back to county cricket score a sackful of runs and you’ll get another chance . as mentioned not one of them has done this, hence we try someone else.
    Gary Ballance did and got his chance, its disappointing Hales hasn’t been recalled yet and tried at 5.
    Opening is tough, its not just England who are struggling. Other international sides are increasingly having woes.

    I think it all stems from the dip in quality of domestic cricket around the world, you just don’t get the best players playing anymore. They may play 1 1st class game before a test series but otherwise are being rested or even on tour or of course playing in some T20 competition.

    No idea how you solve it 🙂

  • It is right to pick the batsmen that the selectors believe can make it and stick with them. Rather than 7 tests perhaps 1 years worth of cricket and tell the player that so that they can be more settled. My issue with this approach is I just don’t trust the selectors to get it right more than wrong

By Jack Mendel

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