Geoffrey Bunting is back with a lovely piece that makes the case for Sam Northeast. Is there room in England’s test team for a more experienced player who has done the hard yards on the county circuit?
Joe Clarke is poised on ninety-seven – on the verge of twin hundreds in his first game for Nottinghamshire – when his captain, Steven Mullaney, robs him with an overnight declaration. At the time, it’s a wise call, giving the team as much time as possible to bowl an ailing Yorkshire out on the last day. But once the game is over and Root, from his customary number four position, and Gary Ballance, from his customary static position, have batted out a draw, the more poetic among us can’t help but feel like England’s next young hope has been a little cheated.
Clarke is apparently too selfless and too nice a guy to take umbrage. But there’s little doubt he’s disappointed. Whether you’re playing down the green on Saturday or at Trent Bridge, whether you have fourteen hundreds to your name or one, you would be disappointed to miss out on a century.
But thanks to that game, which saw classy runs in both innings, we’re all talking about Joe Clarke for the right reasons again. While the past few months have revealed his minor part in the Alex Hepburn rape trial – and the repellent Worcestershire text-chain it revealed – now we’re talking about him playing for England, and soon. After all, according to some of the coaches on the circuit, he’s the next Joe Root. He’s got the technique for the big stage, he can adapt to format and situation, and, as far as many fans are concerned, he’s the next big thing. What’s more, he appears to have the game to bat three for England, which will please Joe Root. As England attempt to protect their underachieving batting core, the number three position is becoming the new short-leg: put the new guy in there and hope for the best. Joe Clarke looks like he could make it his own.
But while we fawn over the obvious talent of Joe Clarke (and with good reason) – and a few in the West Country murmur that James Hildreth has started batting at three for Somerset – another hopeful quietly scored a better hundred on a more difficult pitch one-hundred and sixty-eight miles away.
It’s been a while for Sam Northeast. Not everyone has as easy a transition from schoolboy prodigy to the giddy heights of test match cricket as Alistair Cook. Northeast knows that as well as anyone. He might have broken Cook’s school records, but he struggled in his initial steps in first-class cricket. Back then, another wunderkind was fresh on our minds as we watched Billy Godleman struggle to turn his prolific U19 form into runs for Middlesex. We wondered, as Northeast’s average hovered around thirty after the first few seasons of his career, whether he would suffer the same fate. But while leadership often tempers batsmen, the Kent captaincy – and the extra responsibility he took on at the club – revitalised his game and placed him in the England radar. And if his form this season is anything to go by – beautiful hundreds against Oxford MCCU (118) and Essex (169) – 2019 might just finally be Sam Northeast’s year.
At twenty-nine, he’s older than his closest competition. But while the appeal of twenty-two-year-old Clarke is what, given his talent now, he might achieve in the years to come, Northeast offers instead a wealth of experience, both as player and leader, and sits at the start of what should be his best years. And while Northeast might not play for the Lions as much as Clarke, England’s second eleven has started to look a bit like an under-19 finishing school than an A-team. And with the likes of Steven Mullaney featuring heavily in recent Lions line-ups, A-team selection looks just as confused as the issues facing the senior side of late – a confusion that nobody seems keen to take responsibility for.
Taking over the Kent captaincy at twenty-six, Northeast is no stranger to responsibility. With the team in disarray, Northeast took on a mantle of administrator, recruiter, and selector, off the field, while directing an inconsistent team on the field. One wonders how many other young captains might have done the same. Especially as we continue to watch Joe Root make everyone bat at three for England so he doesn’t have to. There was an impression of absolute dedication in Northeast’s dependability, an impression even an acrimonious exit from Kent in 2017 couldn’t mar. And it’s that kind of dedication and dependability that England could use. We’ve had to put up with a red-faced Jonny Bairstow sulking over losing the gloves to a superior keeper (and, looking at Bairstow’s performances over the past eighteen months, a better batsman) and Stokes not wanting to field in the slips because it’s too boring. In a loose England team that frequently misses the mark, a character like Northeast would be a welcome addition to the dressing room for player and spectator alike.
But as much as we might compare age, experience, and character, Northeast and Clarke find themselves, perhaps surprisingly given that Clarke has played a third of the cricket Northeast has, in very similar positions. Both are starting fresh at new clubs – Northeast moved a year earlier, but his 2018 season was curtailed by injury – and both have big years ahead of them that might lead to England honours. And to that end, it’s runs that count.
Compact and organised, Northeast certainly appears to have the technique for scoring runs in test cricket. He moves into the ball well from a strong, upright base, he plays well off the back foot – an asset Duncan Fletcher always credited as vital to success as an international batsman – and is an accomplished player of spin bowling. He has all the attributes needed to succeed at the top level. Which is more than you can say for some of the batsmen England have tried of late.
His average of 39.2 might not look stellar, but Clarke is only just breaching the hallowed mark of forty (40.2 to be exact). And given that Ben Stokes, allegedly one of England’s premier batsmen, deemed good enough to bat three only a few months ago, boasts a first-class average a shade under thirty-four; and that Jonny Bairstow is viewed as our second best batsman with an average in the mid-thirties, a batsman with a first-class average around forty would be a welcoming addition to a line-up for whom mediocrity is to readily becoming the norm.
It would be hard on both Joe Denly and Rory Burns if they didn’t turn out against Ireland on the 24th July, or at least start the Ashes. But with so much time between the end of the West Indies tour and the beginning of England’s test summer, there’s plenty of opportunity for English first-class batsmen to make their case. And with their runs in the first round of the County Championship, both Clarke and Northeast have made a good impression while Denly has warmed the bench at the IPL.
Either might find themselves in and around the England test team this year. In an Ashes series that promises to be played between two very flawed teams, early Australian success might see the long lifelines extended to some England batsmen finally severed. And while Joe Clarke might have a little extra youth on his side – and experience as a wicket keeper that incites Pavlovian erections in Ed Smith – Northeast isn’t exactly an elder statesman. But in the end, Clarke might find recent events to his detriment, and the England management might opt to give him a little more time to distance himself from the fallout of Alex Hepburn’s rape trial. If that opens the door for Sam Northeast, England would struggle to find a more dependable batsman and it would be interesting to see how his talent and character might translate to the international stage. But more than that, it would be interesting to see how the inclusion of an independent character like Northeast might effect and England team in dire need of a shake-up. Whether he found success or not, it might just be the new snow needed to dislodge the avalanche that England so desperately need.
Either way for many of his admirers, if he does win selection for England, it would be a richly deserved reward after years of being ignored by England.