Style or substance? Resolute defence or blistering attack? Mercurial talent or dogged resistance?
It is a fun quirk of this sumptuous cricketing summer that the World Cup is running parallel to the County Championship. And while the formats are very different, players in both are vying for one identical prize: a place in England’s top order for the opening Ashes test.
Here is the low down on the main contenders for England’s top three. I have considered playing style (PS), first class average (FC) and career experience (CE) to date. And then I have disregarded all of these to make Ed Smith-inspired gut picks of who should line up against Starc, Cummins, Hazlewood and Gary this summer.
Rory Burns PS: Fluent Opener – FC Average: 43.44 – CE: 6 Test caps
The man most assured of his top order place when the Ashes get under way. Has been the most consistent top order batsman in county cricket over recent years and thus earned a run in the team. Doesn’t look out of place at international level, but maybe needs a big score to settle him down and prove that he belongs. Leadership, ability to battle and score quickly all bode well.
Should he play? Yes. Back him for the foreseeable.
Keaton Jennings PS: Slip Cradle – FC Average: 33.62 – CE: 17 Test caps
He has played in Test matches before and is a nice man. Beyond that?
Should he play? No. Slips will miss the catching practice though.
Jason Roy: PS: Swashbuckler – FC Average: 38.38 – CE: 112 white ball International caps
His name has been whispered over the past eighteen months, but an explosive start to the World Cup has turned those whispers into a screaming cacophony. Splendid to watch but batting up the order against a moving Dukes ball is a different game to opening in white ball cricket, as we saw when Jonny Bairstow moved up to number three. Virender Sehwag’s don’t grow on trees, but if Roy came off, he would win matches. Batting him at three might give him a better chance than opening with him.
Should he play? Impossible to say as we simply haven’t seen enough of him in red ball cricket of late. Would be a leap of faith, but would it be a bigger leap of faith than the other options?
Joe Denly: PS: Mercurial Strokemaker – FC Average: 35.91 – CE: 193 First Class Appearances
An Ed Smith favourite who has enjoyed a late-career renaissance. When he gets in Denly is fabulous to watch, all dreamy drives and timed clips off the pads. He is the man in possession, and a super 167* against Notts will have helped his case. And yet even as a Kent fan, my suspicion is that he is not a Test-standard player.
Should he play? If you are picking a number three to come out and play shots, it is hard to make the case for Denly over Vince.
Dominic Sibley PS: Patient Run-Churner – FC Average: 40.66 – CE: 57 First Class Appearances
Remember when we all got very excited about a gritty young chap called Haseeb Hameed? He is out of the international picture, but can Sibley take up the mantle? It isn’t just the volume of runs he has scored in the last twelve months which interests me, but the way he has scored them.
Sibley can bat time (something of an alien concept these days, I know). His career strike rate in the first-class game is 40.66, atypical for a player called up to a modern England squad, but boy is it working. He has the shots to go through the gears and also knows Burns from his time at Surrey, which could make it easier to settle into the side.
Should he play? You don’t want to over-promote him because he is still just 23. But he is the form opener in country cricket and has shown he can make tough runs. Let’s see if he can hack it.
Gary Ballance PS: Battler – FC Average: 48.51 – CE: 23 Test Caps
He’s back! Again! You just can’t stop Gary Ballance from scoring runs. He is the James Vince antithesis, hard to watch, bitty, but capable of making match-defining scores when he gets in. Is he still susceptible to fast, full-pitched bowling due to that backfoot technique? I think he probably is.
Should he play? It feels as though he will come again, but I would rather see him picked for an overseas tour rather than in English conditions for his comeback.
James Vince PS: Stylish Underwhelmer – FC Average: 38.61 – CE: 13 Test Caps
I know, I know. Not Vince again. We all know what his flaws are. Technically, I am not sure there is a better player on this list. But technique alone does not a batsman make, and questions over Vince’s mental fortitude persist. He is probably still the best number three around in county cricket. Would it all be different if he had converted that 83 down under to a century?
Should he play? This really is final, last chance saloon for James Vince. I think he will get the nod, because he has the tools to take the game to this Aussie attack.
Zak Crawley PS: Batting Deity – FC Average: 30.82 – CE: 28 First Class Appearances
The bolter. A certain writer on these very pages tipped him for greatness only a few months ago, and he has not disappointed. Crawley has been talked up for a while at Canterbury, but a series of superb innings in his debut season in Division One have now caught the rest of the domestic game’s attention. Drives down the ground with authority, has wonderfully long levers at an intimidating 6’6, and is scoring runs in a struggling side, which is encouraging.
Should he play? Fine, I’ll admit it’s too early for Crawley, but he will be capped in the next few years and go on to play 100 Tests, averaging 43.76 in a magnificent Test career.
My Top Three:
I am going for Burns and Sibley to open, with Vince batting three. That gives me a right/left pairing to open, and hopefully the right amount of ballance (see what I did there?). Sibley is expected to dig in and see off the new ball, Burns to do so with a little more fluency, and I can then pick a number three who can come in and change the tempo by putting pressure onto the bowlers. I’m giving Vince one last chance but am not opposed to Roy getting the nod instead if his WC form continues.
Peter Jackson Eastwood