Three Is An Ashes Number

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



  • How long can you keep going back to past failures. I love watching Vince but he’s had so many chances and has so few successes. Will never forget his recent tortuous 42 against the Windies at Edgbaston, where he tried to bat time and not get out. I don’t think it’s possible for him to relax and play his normal game at this level any more, knowing another failure could be his last.
    If Roy is fit he must start the series, but equally if he is exposed he must be replaced. This means later on we may need a new opener, whom ideally we can bring in for the rest of the series and give a run to have a decent look at. However this should not be someone for the future or a temporary shoe in but an immediate potential long term prospect. If there’s any justice I think Sibley has done his time, but he’s not a ‘funky’ Smith fit. Someone like Sam Hain probably has a better chance, though he’s clearly been tinkered with to make him a more effective white ball player, using wrists a lot more and not playing as straight as when he first appeared on the scene.

  • Vince drives me crazy. Personally, I’d love to see what Joe Clarke could do there, but that may be my pro-Clark bias. I have had this conversation at length today and I fully believe that you give Roy a chance. Everyone else has had chance after chance to open, and it’s getting a little dull.

    So here goes why. The nature of Test matches has changed. Everybody and his friends like to talk about ‘stepping in’, and it’s granted that we need that. But how about having a swashbuckler up top. It seems to work perfectly well for the Australians and New Zealanders with Warner and Guptill.

    Controversial I know that I want runs on the board, though….

  • I’d rather Roy was given a chance than Vince.
    We’re seeing, with Roy’s injury, exactly how good Vince is, and the answer is… not quite good enough – and yes the problems seem largely mental – but in a way that’s worse, you can fix someone’s technique or stance, but that sudden slip of concentration Vince has shown in both the last couple of matches… just no.

    I haven’t seen enough of Sibley, but style wise he is what we need at opener, and they you can try Roy (or Vince or Denly if you must) at 3.

  • I wonder if James Vince could do with working with a good sports psychologist. Jimmy Anderson on TMS was saying how impressive Vince always looks in the nets and how the county players rate him very highly. People who saw his innings in the last Ashes series, the 83 and the 55, say they were gorgeous to watch. You get the feeling that if he could have only gone on to convert one of those scores, he might be settled in the team by now. Does he perhaps lack self-belief ? Or is he so worried about his place in the side that he loses concentration for a moment and nicks off to keeper or slip ?
    Burns deserves more chances. It won’t be easy for England in the Ashes with possibly 1,2,and 3 all uncertain of their places. Root cannot do it all on his own against Starc, Cummins and co. Although Gary Ballance has the best average of those players in your list, he was awful in the latter part of his test career, looking like a walking wicket, as did Jennings against fast bowling.
    Perhaps modern cricket, with its emphasis on one day and T20 games, just doesn’t produce enough grafters like Alastair Cook any more. Would be great if Roy could come off in Tests, hope he can recover from his hamstring problem.

  • I am sure there are plenty of modern day players capable of holding their concentration together for a few hours, but test cricket these days seems obsessed with scoring runs at between 3 and 4 runs per over, which encourages their white ball mentality of looking for runs from the off. You have to go in with a plan for a 2 innings match that can be adapted many times during the game. Presently I feel tactically we are one dimensional, wanting to play dominating cricket from start to finish, especially with the bat. With plenty of close fielders the risks that pay off in white ball don’t apply in tests. We need to be more adaptable, restricting our naturally attacking instincts if conditions dictate. Presently I don’t see this happening in red or white ball. If we’re not scoring fluent runs we look like an accident waiting to happen.
    Yesterday’s surprise defeat against a no more than competent Sri Lanka showed our tactical limitations, with especially Moin and Archer culpable towards the end, where just sensibly supporting a rampant Stokes would probably have sneaked a win. Now we have to play the top 3 teams and probably need 2 wins to guarentee a semi final place. I believe our arrogance in assuming someone will come to the party irrespective of the circumstances is a major flaw with this outfit. If we can’t keep hitting boundaries we get frustrated and play stupid shots to try and relieve the shackles, whereas a red ball accumulation mentality is sometimes more effective, especially on stodgy wickets like Headingly where the ball isnt coming onto the bat and the bowlers are taking pace off the ball, making timing difficult.


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