England will head into the late summer Test series against Pakistan with some comfort regarding certain selection issues. The bowling, although Steven Finn has taken some time to get going, is settled. Chris Woakes has filled in admirably for Ben Stokes and will count himself unfortunate to miss out on 14 July if the Durham man is fit and firing by then.
Most pleasingly, Alex Hales, ironically by throttling down his attacking instincts, has become the opening partner Alastair Cook has craved for. The irony is that he was given the role specifically to provide some oomph up front, but there is no way anyone can crab a production rate in this series of 292 runs at an average of 58.40 even if he has batted more slowly than expected.
Jonny Bairstow was the batsman of the series, but his wicketkeeping continues to cause serious cause for concern, and one solution going forward would be to pick a specialist gloveman while of course retaining Bairstow’s batting ability. Nick Compton looks sure to be discarded. And even though he has had just this series to make an impression, James Vince can scarcely be relaxed about his chances of appearing against Pakistan with only 54 runs in four innings.
The selectors put faith in Compton to make the problematic no. 3 position his own this summer after the 32-year-old had earned 13 Test caps on the fringes of the side starting in late 2012.
He has failed to pay that faith back, returning scores of 0, 9, 22 not out, 1 and 19. CricViz data reveals that during his relatively short stays at the crease the ball found the edge of his bat eight times and he was hit on the pads seven times. Those edges, by the way, do not include shots designated as “thick edges”, ones less likely to fly to catchers. The same analysis process finds that Vince, who had one fewer innings than Compton, edged the ball six times and was hit on the pads twice. In addition, he played and missed five times (Compton only once) for his four dismissals (9, 35, 10, 0).
What this data suggests is that beyond their poor results, these two right-handers were not playing well enough in any event to suggest that a big score would be around the corner. We might, for example, expect a batsman to play and miss a few times and edge the ball once or twice in a long, substantial innings – just as Compton and Vince did – but not in such curtailed circumstances.
Now let us look in particular at the no. 3 position and how England have tried to fill it since 1 January 2012. Why pick that date, you might ask? Well it was after sweeping India 4-0 that very summer that England reached the coveted no. 1 position. A rapid decline ensued with only one of the following four Test series won, and they’ve been generally inconsistent all the while.
At the start of 2012, the man in possession was Jonathan Trott, a reassuring presence at the crease. Trott performed creditably during the time in question (averaging 40.40), but was forced to relinquish the position after one Test of the 2012-13 Ashes debacle when suffering from severe mental burn-out.
The first man England turned to was Joe Root. But, for all his success before and since lower down the order, a promotion for the talented Yorkshireman did not work and it is not thought likely there will be a further Root experiment at three again any time soon. In June 2014, England went with Gary Ballance. For a while this was a great success, but then there was a run of five poor Tests for Ballance. And despite an average of 50.82 at number three, he was dropped. Ian Bell was tried – it didn’t work – and finally we got to Compton.
Good number threes are difficult to find. In the modern era, Kumar Sangakkara, Ricky Ponting, Hashim Amla and Rahul Dravid stand out. Before them, you really have to go as far back as Don Bradman, Wally Hammond and George Headley to find exceptionally good players at first drop. It’s notable that the great West Indians Brian Lara and Viv Richards preferred hiding themselves further away from the new ball, Greg Chappell did better lower down and Sachin Tendulkar never batted higher than no. 4 in 200 Tests. In other words, there appears to have been a golden age of number threes before the War, and then a 60-year hiatus before the emergence of Sangakkara et al.
It’s fair to conclude that this is a position that as a selector you have to take great care over. But England guessed when they dropped Ballance. They asked Bell to move up a spot following scores of 1 and 11 from the Warwickshire man in last year’s heavy Lord’s defeat to Australia. And they guessed again when they put Compton there despite some fairly modest form for his county Middlesex.
Essex’s Tom Westley and Durham’s Scott Borthwick are among the players who will be considered now for this critical position, and whichever one gets the nod could have quite a tough baptism given that Pakistan have a significantly more exciting bowling attack than Sri Lanka’s. There’s the added menace of the returning Mohammad Amir to consider too.
England’s specialist batsmen cannot expect to keep being bailed out by the lower order, as they were both in South Africa and again during this series against Sri Lanka. And that’s why the men who are paid to make the big calls need to take great care in getting that number three selection spot on.