Trent Bridge has been a high scoring venue in limited overs cricket of late—earlier this season the average score across six domestic innings was 380—but even given the ground’s recent history few people could have envisaged the carnage that unfolded in the first innings of this match.
Alex Hales is brimming with confidence. His 83 on day one of the second England v Sri Lanka Test was his third consecutive 50+ score in first-class cricket, his best such run since June 2011. Two near-misses in the search for a maiden Test ton do not prevent recognition that he belongs in Test cricket.
The Nottinghamshire man was a model of restraint in the first Test of the series. He left alone 28.6% of balls faced at Headingley, defending a further 28.1%. He played an assured opener’s innings, acclimatising to conditions – against bowlers who admittedly did not make him play enough – before showing more intent.
Hales played two attacking shots in first 20 balls in Leeds, four in his next 20 and 12 in the 20 subsequent deliveries. It was a knock that showed he could apply his natural game in the context of Test conditions.
That display helped produce an even more assured display at the Emirates Riverside. Sri Lanka bowled a tighter line in less helpful conditions, but a leave percentage of 11.7% showed Hales felt more at ease in imposing himself.
It was partly due to facing more spin in the second Test, but the touring bowlers attacked Hales’ stumps far more at Durham. 25% of deliveries he faced would have hit the stumps, compared with 4.3% at Headingley.
Less swing tightened their line, but Hales drew the bowlers into his hitting zone through his excellent judgment and concentration in the series opener.
In both his innings against Sri Lanka Hales has been dismissed attacking left-arm spin, errors of judgment that he should not be criticised for. Few can accelerate like the tall right-hander and whilst he will be frustrated in perishing after twice doing the hard work, it is that application which is notable.
Alastair Cook is nearing yet another notable landmark. The England captain is 36 runs short of 10,000 in Tests and will expect to raise his bat in acknowledgement against Sri Lanka at Headingley next month.
His opening partner will also be under scrutiny, for very different reasons. Another Test series, another debate about who will open with Cook. The man in possession is yet again under pressure, and the list of alternatives to Alex Hales is longer than ever.
If the selectors do move away from the Nottinghamshire man, it could well be towards a player previously tried and discarded. County Championship runs are expected of the candidates, and Sam Robson has started the season in a manner that is hard to ignore.
Robson plundered 231 and 106 against Warwickshire at Lord’s, maintaining his habit of heavy early season scoring. Batting in April and May is supposedly so tricky that it has contributed to a major change in competition rules. It is not an issue for Robson.
Facing the moving ball on juicy early summer wickets has held no problems for the Middlesex man. Since his Championship debut in 2010, Robson averages 47.6 batting in April and May. His average in these months from 2013 onwards is 59.4.
Seven of Robson’s 10 Championship centuries have come in April and May, with four of those tons seeing him pass 150. The Middlesex man is clearly adept at catching the eye early in the season, but if his headquarters haul against the Bears is not enough to edge out Hales, can he maintain this form?
Few of the possible partners for Cook have as many questions asked of their technique as Robson. Adam Lyth’s tendency to fall to an outside edge became apparent last summer, but Robson’s susceptibility to balls moving into him became even more damaging.
Four bowled dismissals in 11 Test innings suggested to some a flaw that was unacceptable for a prospective Test opener. Nicking to the keeper and slips is one thing, missing straight ones is quite another.
However, perhaps too much was read into this mode of dismissal. 14.2% of Robson’s Championship dismissals have been bowled, compared with 23.3% for Hales. The incumbent England opener had his stumps disturbed eight times in 18 Championship innings last year. 22.4% of Nick Compton’s Championship dismissals have been bowled, largely batting in the middle order.
Openers have the hardest job to correct technical issues, as the new ball poses the most challenges. All have weaknesses to some degree and Robson knows what contributed to his England axing. His work in correcting a problem that was not exposed by express pace seems to be bearing fruit.
The United Arab Emirates is an appropriate place to seek the fresh laying of solid foundations. England have not settled on a Test opening partnership in recent years and Alastair Cook will have another new partner as his team seeks to construct some high-rise totals in keeping with the Emirati skyline.
Six players have tried to fill the role Andrew Strauss vacated in 2012. The lack of progress is shown by the fact that the man first given the chance was the most successful. Nick Compton averaged 57.9 in his 17 opening stands with Cook; none of the subsequent five candidates have averaged above 32.3 in unison with the skipper.
Compton was partly dropped for his slow scoring, a trait that has characterised all of these partnerships – the desire to pair Cook with a more fluent scorer led the selectors to Adam Lyth, whose average first wicket run rate of 2.83 with Cook was the highest of the six combinations.
|England opening partnerships since August 2012|
|Cook and..||Partnerships||Runs||Highest||Runs per over||100 stands||Average|
Current candidates Alex Hales and Moeen Ali offer various attributes, but both have the range of shot and intent that is seemingly required in the continuing search for top order stability.
After hitting 907 Test runs at an average of 50.4 this year, Cook’s patient approach of accumulation is in good order – will it be Moeen’s elegant left-handed aggression or the powerful belligerence of Hales that provides the impetus?
The Cook – Compton axis was a crucial part of England’s success in India in 2012/13. They piled up 493 runs in their eight opening stands, at an average of 70.4. Their steady scoring rate of 2.69 runs per over was not a problem in the context of such productivity – Cook in particular went on to score heavily against toiling spinners when well-set.
However, a solid base does not guarantee success in spin-friendly environments. David Warner and Chris Rogers largely did a good job at the top of Australia’s order in their humbling 2-0 defeat against Pakistan in the UAE in 2014/15. Australia were comprehensively out-batted overall.
They averaged 53 in their four partnerships, recording their team’s highest stand of a disastrous tour, 128 in the very first Australian stand of the series at Dubai. Pakistan’s average opening partnership was 35.8, but this was the only area that the tourists out-batted the series winners.
|Average partnerships 2014/15|
The first wicket was the only one in the top seven for which Australia had a higher average partnership than Pakistan. Solid starts were wasted by an under-performing engine room: Pakistan averaged 174 for the third wicket, Australia 16.3. The disparity was 170.5 runs for the fourth wicket.
Australia’s batsmen were blown away in the UAE in 2014/15. England will need to have more than a steady opening partnership if they are to prosper against Pakistan’s talented bowling unit.
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