Ben Jones analyses the most eye-catching of England’s Test selections.
Jason Roy will open the batting for England in a Test match this week. It’s a selection which has the potential to excite and enthral the newly engaged British cricketing public, but which also has the potential to end with a whimper. England have gambled hard on Roy.
Regardless of what might be said, he’s not been selected because of domestic form, given that he’s opened twice in the last five Championship seasons. Unequivocally, he has been selected on the back of his ODI record, particularly his World Cup campaign, and even more particularly for the style of play which has brought him success. Bringing him in is an attempt to recapture the joy of the tournament, to transplant that swagger and that boldness into a slightly frail and timid Test side. But it will it work?
Well, while he’s been tearing it up in ODIs since the last World Cup, his FC numbers in that time are mightily impressive, albeit made down the order. Of the seven men to have consistently averaged more than him in the last five seasons, only two haven’t played Test cricket; Sam Northeast and Ben Brown. If Test selection should be judged on runs and averages, then Roy has an excellent case. He’s averaged more than James Hildreth for the last five years. It doesn’t fit the narrative, but it’s true.
On top of that healthy average is the rather welcome addition of Roy’s scoring rate; nobody, with that 2000 run caveat, scores quicker.
While it’s not as important as the average, that scoring rate does matter. One of the many, many men England have tried at the top of the order to replace Andrew Strauss was Roy’s erstwhile opening partner, Alex Hales. One of the more surprising ironies of this era was that, brought in with a licence to attack and compensate for Alastair Cook’s pedestrian scoring rate, Hales ended up scoring slower than the typically stodgy Cook. Is Roy set for a similar fate? Well, who knows, but he is working from a stronger starting position. Before Hales made his Test debut, his FC scoring rate was 3.61rpo. As it stands, Roy’s is 4.92rpo.
However, there are signs that can give us an indication of how he might go. For instance, his defensive game is not strong. Since the 2015 World Cup, Roy is dismissed every 48 defensive shots he plays in Championship cricket; the average for top six batsmen in that time is 55 shots. Essentially, Roy has a slightly worse defensive record than the average Championship batsman in the time he’s been a prominent, internationally recognised batsman.
Furthermore, one of the key differences between the white ball and the red ball is that the latter swings more, for longer – especially in England. The primary skill demanded of a red ball opener is the ability to play the swinging ball, and from what we can glean from his international career to date, it is not clear whether Roy has that skill. His average against straight deliveries is rock-solid; against the swinging ball, it’s shaky.
The same story is true of seam movement. When the ball doesn’t move, Roy is ruthless; when it does, he becomes a touch more human.
It isn’t a terrible record. If we compare it to all batsmen – a set which does include the tail, of course – the most obvious distinguishing factor is that Roy really bullies those straight balls. That’s his point of difference. But it does highlight his limitations.
And yet, risk has always been a part of Roy’s game. His success in ODIs hasn’t been built on the absence of danger, but rather the embracing of it. Roy edges and misses more often than the average ODI opener; the only man to score more than him in the last four years is Rohit Sharma.
The way that risk and reward weave themselves through Roy’s career is consistent. He gambles, he fails, he gambles, he fails, he gambles, he succeeds. According to CricViz’s Expected Wicket model, the balls bowled to Roy in ODIs would typically result in a wicket every 41 balls, and average 33.50. In reality, Roy is dismissed more often than that, and still manages to average more. He does get out more often than you’d expect, but he finds a way to make that work for him.
And perhaps, that’s the most important and relevant skill of all, in the current cricketing climate. The ability to find a way, whichever way, and make it work for you.
Test batting is tough right now. Don’t listen to the nay-sayers, the T20-slayers and the better-in-my-dayers; almost every team at the top table in world cricket right now has a clump of top class pace bowlers. According only to the trajectory of the ball – nothing to do with the batsman – the new ball bowling we’ve seen since the start of 2018 has been the most incisive on record. Trying to survive is a task only the elite can manage at the moment, and England’s only elite opener of the last five years retired last summer.
In such a climate, you have to go to the extremes. It’s hard to embrace a radical solution to a difficult problem, particularly in cricket, particularly in Britain. But 15 men have opened for England in the post Strauss-era, and only two have averaged more than 32. Simply picking the best opener in the Championship has not worked. Opting against trying to survive the new ball, and instead trying to attack it, is a good option in these circumstances.
The sensation that you feel when Roy gets it right, the physical satisfaction of those fast hands and keen eyes, is worth a gamble in any situation, but right now, it might be the logically correct call. If it comes off, and England ride that World Cup wave for the rest of a golden summer, then it’ll look like a stroke of genius – if not, it’ll look like a desperate attempt to rekindle a golden few weeks, like listening to the song of the summer on a cold winter morning. Joe Root will be desperately hoping that England are still dancing to Roy’s tune by the time September rolls around.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.