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.