Dev vs Dan: Cook’s opening partner

Sam Robson

It’s meant to be semi-regular, but instead it’s about as common as Halley’s Comet. It’s supposed to be funny or insightful or something (?), but instead it’s…well it’s just not.

It’s Dev vs Dan! This time, our picks for who should pair Alastair Cook; from Nick Compton to Sam Robson to Angus Robson to the latest Shropshire Under-13s sensation. We cover it all.


Stick With Experience (Dan)

I can imagine what Dev’s writing as I put pen to paper — he’s remarkably predictable. Almost certainly, he’ll be rubbishing everyone who has opened the batting for England (Cook aside) since the retirement of Andrew Strauss. He’ll be calling for the elevation of someone young — probably Angus Robson — or someone from Warwickshire.

I don’t blame him. The options England have cycled through have performed incredibly badly. Nick Compton failed to make the position his own, Joe Root got shifted to open before sanity prevailed and he returned to the middle order. Michael Carberry was a casualty of the Summer of Johnson, while Sam Robson started brightly before fading fast. The same thing applies to Adam Lyth (and the less said about the Trott and Moeen overseas intermissions the better). It’s a wheel of incredible mediocrity; Alex Hales the newest obviously-out-of-his-depth spoke.

It’s incredibly enticing to try someone new — the next uncapped guy with a couple of County Championship centuries behind him. Nick Browne or Ben Duckett, perhaps. Or taking a massive punt on the potential of Alex Lees or Daniel Bell-Drummond. Maybe try to eke a couple of years out of an ageing journeyman, someone like Ian Westwood or Varun Chopra; Chris Nash or James Adams — an English answer to Chris Rogers.

But it’s all bullshit; it’s a reversion to 1980s and 1990s England thinking — chopping and changing players from series to series (sometimes from game to game), discarding players who don’t immediately perform and creating a culture of precariousness. If the stress of international cricket isn’t enough for a rookie opening batsman, piled on top of that is the knowledge that your first misstep might be your last. The selectors exploit the form while it lasts, then discard the player with no thought of developing a long-term, sustainable partner to Cook.

There’s a balance, obviously. Sometimes players inexplicably can’t step up given a multitude of opportunities, despite everything suggesting they should (see; Hick, G and Ramprakash, M). Sometimes players who are clearly out of their depth are persisted with for far too long (see: Rutherford, H).

It was often said of the great Australian team of the early-2000s that it was harder to get out of the team than it was to get in — that once you forced yourself into the fold by sheer weight of runs, a run of poor form wasn’t going to end in your abandonment. The culture followed the principle that form is temporary, yet class is permanent — and a player wouldn’t be elevated unless they proved themselves to possess the latter.

England cannot afford to continue down a path of constant change. Nor can they outright accept continual mediocrity. They need to reboot, to hit the reset button. They need to pretend that the last two years of selection didn’t happen. No more spokes on the wheel.

So who do they pick?

A pure reset suggests Nick Compton, the guy they backed initially and who has never done too much wrong in the position — cast aside for a newer, sexier model (who ended up being a far better #4 than opener). The problem is, once more, he failed to make himself undroppable in South Africa and he’s hardly stood out in the County Championship since. But if you let Nick Compton continue to do what Nick Compton does (as he discussed when I interviewed him last year, he plays a particular role), then you have a serviceable medium-term opener who is proven to work well alongside Cook. The same could be said of Michael Carberry, who was (to a degree) groomed as the successor to Strauss from the beginning. Remember that Test in Bangladesh, circa 2010?

Sam Robson was the Great New Hope who seemed to suffer a crisis of confidence as his debut summer wore on, before being discarded after a mere seven Tests. The time in the wilderness may have done him good, given his bright start to the current summer. Perhaps he’s the one to invest in, the winner to pick and give an extended run.

If Robson fails after being given a fair opportunity, or when Carberry or Compton’s tenure runs its course, perhaps Duckett, Lees or Bell-Drummond will have built up strong enough portfolios (in the Championship, at Lions level, or even in ODIs) to be more than a ‘Hail Mary’ silver bullet fix. But their time is not now. They are not ready, yet.

So with Carberry notionally retired via the MCL, I’m hitching my bandwagon to a Sam Robson recall with Compton retaining his place at #3.

Actually, screw it. Just pick Ed Joyce to piss Ireland off.

Why Continue With Failure? (Dev)

Ah, a personal attack. A lovely start from Dan. I won’t resort to the same level – it’s a clear sign his argument was beaten before it began. Partly, that’s because I agree with him to a large extent. England has chopped and changed openers to far too much of a degree in recent years. The post-Strauss wheel of tripe has been perpetuated, not stymied, by England’s selection policies.

I have form in arguing this point too: I suggested Adam Lyth was in a position to rectify his technical difficulties, and wrote before his recall that “perhaps Nick Compton was more than a shade unlucky”.

The issue is that none of the past options have justified re-selection; Nick Compton is struggling for runs, Alex Hales has recently hit 73 against Murtagh, Finn and Roland-Jones but has been barren for a while, and Adam Lyth hit a century in his first Championship innings of 2016 but has failed to pass 19 in six subsequent innings.

Sam Robson, with two hundreds and a double-ton already this season has piled on the runs – but is it a false dawn? Last season saw him make barely 900 runs at an average of under 30. Surely, if someone is to come into the national set-up (whether as a new cap or making a return) you need more than four matches of form?

So who else is there? The options that have been tried before have failed to prove they’re improved. The main thing with a new man brought in is that they do avoid the pitfalls suffered with previous options – it’s time to make a decision and stick with it.

Alex Lees seems an obvious contender – he’s been talked up for some time. And he has many of the facets required of an opening batsman. He seems to relish a fight, has shown himself capable of scoring tough runs, and in 2013 and ’14 made over 1600 First Class runs at 45.

But his issue is form. Although he’s had a reasonable start to 2016, starting with an excellent knock in the Champions match in Abu Dhabi, his 2015 form left a lot to be desired. He needs a run of form to prove himself before he becomes a serious contender.

You could consider an aging talent; another thing Dan was incorrect in predicting I’d argue for. He refers to Adams, Chopra and Westwood among others. The issue here is that England has a solid batting line up – men like Cook, Stokes, Root, Bairstow. James Taylor is a huge loss, but Ballance has stacks of First Class runs, Bell has a wealth of experience, and County Cricket has plenty of middle order batsmen on offer.

So the man to choose to partner Cook is a long term solution. Stop-gaps are great when a team is weak or desperate (Chris Rogers, Adam Voges, the return of Daniel Vettori, Jonathan Trott’s bizarre reappearance) but not ideal for a side that is finally clinging to some semblance of balance.

Ben Duckett is excellent, certainly – and has a very bright future ahead of him. But he needs to see a little more cricket before he’s rushed in. It’s certainly a fact that England often waits too long to blood talent, but on this occasion the best option is to have him working in and around the team camp, not receiving a cap just yet.

Daniel Bell-Drummond shows beautiful touch at times, but a mid-30s average isn’t ideal for a man who’s yet to venture out of Division Two. Consistency and a top-flight club are the keys for him. Same goes for Angus Robson, a talent I rate very highly – for mine, the much better opening Robson brother!

A punt could be taken on someone like Tom Abell or a man like Sam Hain could be transferred to opener. Nick Browne is useful, yep, but again needs time.

Hell, I’ve got it!

Sometimes, with specialist batsmen all around you, and a team that has Adil Rashid and Stuart Broad as Messrs 8 and 9, what you need is a toolkit cricketer. Someone who’s versatile; who has opened plenty, but who doesn’t just have one string to his bow.

So who can bat at opener or six? Who can offer left-arm tweakers? Who offers a gritty, solid outlook and a total-package cricketer.

His stats aren’t flashy – nor is his cricket – but the man who could be just what England need is someone who bats for time, not quick runs, who can do whatever role is needed on the day, and can offer an extra frontline bowler.

Hello, Zafar Ansari.


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