The Pope, Brook and Bairstow Conundrum

Today we have a guest spot from new writer Matt Gilby. Like many of us, he can’t figure out England’s thinking at numbers 3 and 5 in the order...

The squad for the first test against New Zealand was labelled too safe or too boring by some fans and pundits, primarily because of the retained allegiance to Craig Overton, Jack Leach, Jonny Bairstow and Ollie Pope.

Rob Key and Ben Stokes both emphasised their desire to “pick the best team” by recalling James Anderson and Stuart Broad. This decision was expected, but the selection of England’s top order to try and address the frailties seen throughout Joe Root’s captaincy has only provided more questions.

Ollie Pope has been one of England’s hot prospects since his Surrey debut as a teenager but had not batted at number three in first-class cricket before the Lord’s test. Although an overnight fix was not expected, the 24-year-old was out for 7 and 10 in his maiden innings in that position, confirming the peculiarity of his selection.

Rob Key compared the decision to bat Pope at number 3 as similar to Jonathan Trott’s, who also began his test career at number 5 and did not have much experience at 3 before cementing his place there. The two are hardly comparable, however, as Trott had averaged 62.23 in his first 21 tests, with six centuries. Pope has now played 24 tests, averaging just 27.60 with one century to his name.

Jonny Bairstow was also shown faith by the selectors at number 5, having previously bought time with his century in the fourth test of the Ashes series in Australia, and Ben Stokes was impressed by his attacking start in the second innings of the New Zealand test, despite the Yorkshireman scoring just 17 across his two innings.

Unlike Anderson and Broad, the threat to Pope and Bairstow’s places are more immediate, and their potential replacement is in fine form and is already in the England dressing room waiting to seize his opportunity.

Yorkshire’s Harry Brook has averaged 151.6 in the 2022 County Championship and was unlucky not to receive his first test cap at Lord’s after being named in the 13-man squad. Whilst he is a number 5 at county level, the implication is that he could debut at number 3 or number 5.

England’s decision to use Pope at number 3 was always going to be a huge gamble but selecting another back-up with no number three experience is mystifying.

The likelihood is that Pope and Bairstow will be given chances in the second and third matches against New Zealand after Brook was released by the ECB to play in the T20 Blast this week. Both Pope and Bairstow must score runs at Trent Bridge or Headingley if they want to cement a place in the test against India in July with Brook’s form ensuring he will be given his chance sooner rather than later.

The England selectors’ policy for defining the best team based on the balance of international experience, county form or intra-squad relations will become more transparent as the matches and selections progress, with the Pope, Bairstow and Brook conundrum looking likely to be the first big call to make.

Matt Gilby


  • I think that Bairstow should be gone. That century against Australia was in defiance of a pattern in test cricket that barring 12 months from December 2015 can only be described as 10 years of underachievement in that format by Bairstow. I am not a huge fan of Pope at three, but having decided to do it, let it be given a fair trial rather than immediately abandoning the idea after one bad game. Brook shad bat at five, and there are three possible candidates for the no three slot if and when the time to abandon the Pope experiment comes: Abell, Bohannon and Bracey, with my preference at the moment being for Bohannon. NB all three of these players regularly bat at three in red ball cricket.

    • That’s not the point. The point is Bairstow is the best one-day batsman in the world. He’s currently averaging over 100 in ODIs and in the last 10 years, there have been only a handful of batsmen in that time who averaged above that mark. In fact, he’s one of the few batsmen to have averaged over 50 in a calendar year.
      Bairstow is simply the best one-day batsman in the world.
      He’s nowhere near the best Test batsman, but he’s the best one-day batsman.

  • At some stage we need to allow a few others to show what they can do. Not casting off yet but assuming this summer is the last for our 2 great seamers and if/when all fit I would like to see the following:

    Patterson white

    There are plenty of other names who can compete with these and I believe there are more young names coming through. Haines sibley yates lawrence pope is another top 5 and with Curran looking better with the bat could be a batting all-rounder 6 to one day replace Stokes. The bowling is not a big issue as long as we still have the 2 greats and can one day get these other lads fit. There is plenty for management to work with and at some stage they need to stop expecting different results from same old names.

  • But what about positions 1 and 2? Do we think Crawley and Less are the answer? If we do I’m not sure what the question is. Lee’s just doesn’t deliver and is almost Sibleyesque and Crawley is constantly out caught in the slips playing booming drives. 15/2 says it all. Personally I’d bring Burns back, but really is there two prospective test openers good enough in England?
    But Bairstow needs to go now. How many more times is he going to bowled through a 6 inch gap between bat and pad.

    • I agree, Doug : since Burns was dropped we haven’t seen anyone better. Interestingly, Compton has more first class centuries than Crawley who, although clearly a class act, has consistently failed to deliver.

      • Yes and remember Kent has been in Div2 for some time up to this season which makes a big difference.

  • I am hoping that Brendon McCallum is able to coach Crawley to stop playing the big booming drive without moving his feet. When he does move his feet, he looks majestic. I fear and, I hope I am wrong, but Pope could be another Mark Ramprakash ie scores loads of runs in the County Championship but doesn’t do it at Test level. I don’t think YJB should be anywhere near the Test team, the gap between his bat and pad is alarming for a Test batter. They should give Brook an opportunity.
    Sadly, I don’t think Archer will ever play Test cricket again as he is too injury prone and not strong enough to withstand bowling 20 overs a day and Ollie Robinson needs to sort out his back and stay fit to get back in the side. It is a shame as Robinson is a very good bowler.

  • I must admit, I am mystified by the Brook decision. On June 1st he was, deservedly in my view, deemed worthy of a place in the squad. By June 8th – by virtue of not playing – he is deemed surplus to requirements. In the interim, what has happened ? Well, England have played a Test match in which the top 6 batsman with Root excluded have amassed 186 runs between them. That is an average of 93 runs per innings; 15.5 per innings per batsman. If Brook is not considered worth a try in these circumstances you have to question why he was included in the squad in the first place.

  • As you say, they promised to select the best team. So I don’t understand why Compton and Malan aren’t there. Imagine a top six of Crawley/Lees, Compton, Malan, Root, Brook and Stokes. It has far more form in it and is also starting to look at the future. You also have several young batsmen waiting for their chances – Haines, Lawrence, Bohannon, Koehler-Cadmore, Hain, Smith, and Yates – but you obviously wouldn’t throw them all in at once. The bowling stocks are depleted at the moment so I wouldn’t change a thing although as with the batting, you do have several players waiting in the wings (when fit) – Robinson, Archer, Mahmood, Brookes, Stone, Bamber, Carse, Blatherwick and Fisher. The future could look bright but the selectors just need to find the courage to look over the precipice.

  • The problems with the middle order connect to the problems with the openers. Compton deserves a chance and Crawley could either bat No.3 or go back to the CC and the place go to Bohannon. If they think that’d make the top order too inexperienced then recalling Burns would be better than the current situation.

    YJB did score centuries in the Ashes and WI – the hostility some have towards him I find hard to fathom. He’s also one of England’s few outstanding fielders.

    Crawley and Pope seem to have been annointed as “the future” and keep on being selected whatever they do. I would give both an extended time out of the team to discover if they really have the appetite to tighten up for success at the top level (see Gooch 1975-78 and Stewart, Hussain and even briefly Atherton all went through something similar). I’m not surprised they seem obsessed with repeating the team in the mid to late Noughties – but Strauss, Pietersen and Trott were significantly older when they made their debuts than the players now. Their need to qualify probably did everyone an unintended favour!

  • Lots of interesting comments here prompted by an excellent article. Personally I’d give Lees the rest of the NZ series, I’m losing patience with Crawley and Pope. We have the keeper right at last though! I fear we can forget Archer in test cricket and Robinson also seems fragile.
    The good news is the long list of young talent emerging. Perhaps first class and test cricket have a bright future in England after all.

  • I am a fan of Pope and believe we are right to back him – in the same way as Steve Waugh and Kallis were backed. Although I would play him at five.
    I think part of the issue is that we selected a coach with little experience of county cricket and whom, if his IPL team had been successful, might not have been here before the start of the series. I am not saying he is the wrong choice (he has impressed me) merely that it meant that a “red ball re-start” was not practical at the beginning of the new regime. So we have Lees who is being given the time to succeed or fail, Bairstow picked as not done badly recently, Key rates Crawley (is he too close?) – fair enough but if a new era started without any of these pre conceived ideas then the batting order would have looked very different.
    Personally my top six would be;
    Gubbins (not a fashionable choice, but his twin centuries against a strong Lancs attack on a juicy wicket were impressive)

    Brook is unlucky. IMO Compton has not yet done enough to warrant inclusion – Less than half a season playing his home games on a very flat deck.

  • We need to find a solution to the top order that has some immediate effect. Perusing failures like Crawley and Pope, makes no sense to me. I like Bairstow but his lack of red ball preparation showed. Even bringing back the likes of Burns, Vince and Billings would be an improvement on what we have. At least they know their game’s and what test cricket is about.
    Messing with the batting order rarely works. If a batsman excels at a certain position pick him in that position. Key’s comparison of Trott and Pope makes no sense as Trott always had the temperament and technique that could adapt to the more disciplined approach needed at the top of the order. Crawley and Pope have never had that as they are stroke players, not accumulators. Pope reminds me of Bell, who took time to graduate up the order.

    • Aren’t you contradicting yourself saying perusing failures like Crawley and Pope makes no sense and then suggesting bring back burns and vance. I have little confidence in Crawley or pope at the moment but they are 24 and have potential. Someone like burns is in his 30s has a lot of games under his belt so really is what he is. And with an average of 30 what he isn’t is a test match batsman.

      • Yes but Root and Stokes aside Burns has a better average than anyone else. Crawley should go back to Kent and Pope not be set up to fail by batting him at 3, totally the wrong position. He is a 5 or 6.

  • The problem is of course that none of the mentioned contenders will play any red ball cricket during these test matches so what was good form will fade for lack of game time. For example Lawrence would likely have been a starter in the last test but for any injury. He hit a century on his return but too late for selection. But if England are looking to make changes for the India test, can they select him based on runs he scored a month previously? Likewise all the others? So they might as well stick with who they have. This is the big issue with the schedule.

  • Interesting article by Andy Bull yesterday about NZ’s planned change to their pitches just over a decade ago. Just so long as the purpose wasn’t to be a Trojan Horse for adopting the NZ model of governance and emasculating the counties….


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