By Michael Stafford-Jones
- After consistent struggles, England need to decide on their best top three
- The selectors must also work out who is the best third seamer
- Ben Foakes started his Test career superbly, so is it fair to leave him out?
ST LUCIA, WEST INDIES – England have got plenty to resolve before The Ashes after a brilliant whitewash of Sri Lanka and a disappointing loss to the West Indies.
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Who should England select as their top three batsmen?
England’s top three for the Third Test in the West Indies consisted of Rory Burns, Keaton Jennings and Joe Denly. However, none of them have made a wholly convincing case for Ashes selection and, theoretically, they could all be dropped.
In reality, this scenario is extremely unlikely to happen, as it would require three other top-order batsmen to perform outstandingly between now and then.
Despite this, English batsmen should be excited by the opportunity in front of them, because there is at least one place that is definitely up for grabs, and that is the opening berth soon to be vacated by Jennings.
The Lancashire opener has had 17 matches to make the spot his own, and he has spectacularly failed to do that. If you take his two centuries out of the equation, he only averages 17.43 in his other 30 innings. That demonstrates just how little he contributes to the team.
Furthermore, Jennings scored both of his centuries (as well as his only fifty) against spin-dominated attacks on spinner-friendly pitches. That means he has never made a score of note on pitches that favour pace bowling – a fact that is not surprising when you consider his glaring technical weakness outside the off-stump against fast bowling. Given all this, how can England ever select the opener again outside of the sub-continent unless he changes his technique?
The player who should replace Jennings is Jason Roy. He is the most talented batsman who is not currently in the Test team and he has the ability to win matches on his own. He has shown this in his ODI career for England, most notably when he scored 180 against Australia in 2018 and 162 against Sri Lanka in 2016.
The Surrey opener has played 70 ODIs for England so far. This means he has plenty of international experience already and the selectors know he can produce his best performances under pressure. In addition, he might have played a starring role in a World Cup win before The Ashes begin. All of these things are compelling reasons to pick Roy, so the selectors should be willing to overlook a shortage of red-ball cricket – as they did with Jos Buttler in 2018.
Although Burns did not score enough runs over the winter to cement his place as an opener for The Ashes, he showed he has the temperament and technique to succeed in Test cricket by scoring two fifties (84 and 59) and batting for over 60 balls in five of his 12 innings. This gives England plenty to work with, and they should stick with him for The Ashes.
Denly is a different proposition because he has only played two Tests so far and cannot be accurately judged. And while he showed enough during his 69 in St Lucia to be worthy of selection for the first Ashes Test, he may need to bat well between now and then to retain the selectors’ faith.
His situation is further complicated by his involvement in the IPL in April and May because, if one of the other players the selectors have their eyes on (James Vince and Joe Clarke appear to be the frontrunners) starts the county season superbly, they may be tempted to bring them in to replace Denly.
Who should be the third seamer for the first Ashes Test?
Four of England’s five bowlers are certain of their places: James Anderson, Stuart Broad, Moeen Ali and Ben Stokes. That leaves one spot for the rest to fight for and, after his brilliant 5-41 in St Lucia, Mark Wood is in pole position.
Wood’s case for selection is further strengthened by the venue for the First Test: Edgbaston. The surface in Birmingham is typically fast and bouncy and Steven Finn has enjoyed success there in the past, so it should suit the Durham paceman.
Other pitches in The Ashes may suit swing bowlers, so Chris Woakes and Sam Curran might be rotated in for those games. This could a good thing for the injury-prone Wood, as it will enable him to be fresher when he is called upon.
Another possible option for England is the newly-qualified Jofra Archer, whose express pace and powerful lower-order hitting makes him one of the most-exciting young players in world cricket. If he gets a chance during the World Cup and performs well, he could challenge Wood for the title of premier fast bowler.
Is it fair to leave out Ben Foakes?
When Jonny Bairstow injured his ankle and was ruled out of the First Test in Sri Lanka, Foakes was summoned from his holiday and put straight into the team.
He was an instant success. He scored a brilliant, patient century to rescue the team after a familiar collapse and showed why he is considered by some to be the world’s best wicketkeeper. Since then, he has continued to keep well and he has also scored an unbeaten 65 and a few other useful thirties.
In short, Foakes has done nothing wrong so far, which made it very surprising to see England drop him for the Third Test in the Caribbean to improve the balance of the side. He did not deserve to lose his place and, in an ideal world, Head Coach Trevor Bayliss and Captain Joe Root would find a way to accommodate him in the team.
Bairstow is the reason the selectors face this predicament. He was not keen to continue batting at No.3 and he wanted the keeping gloves back. Bayliss and Root granted his wishes and England won in St Lucia with a batting line-up that looked to have a better balance.
Bayliss confirmed after the win that this means Foakes will probably miss out on an Ashes place, but Bairstow has undoubtedly put pressure on himself. If he does not score many runs in the first few Tests against Australia, there will be plenty of observers who will want the Surrey wicketkeeper to return.
The First Test of The Ashes begins at Edgabaston at 11am GMT on 1st August 2019. Before that, England play a four-day Test against Ireland starting on the 24th July at 11am.
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