The English selectors are faced with a quandary ahead the Test series against Pakistan. Once more, the debate about who should partner Alistair Cook at the top of the order has raised its head.
Since the retirement of Andrew Strauss, several players who have been in outstanding domestic form were rewarded with a chance to impress for their country. Sam Robson, a returning Jonathan Trott and now Adam Lyth have all come and gone. For the first test of a three-match series starting on Tuesday, the opening berth is vacant again and either Moeen Ali or Nottinghamshire’s Alex Hales will fill it.
Ali has been afforded the chance to open in both tour matches against Pakistan 'A' and, therefore, looks in pole position. Is this be the right decision for England? I feel that it makes sense as a short-term fix, but with a trip to South Africa looming in the background, it constitutes somewhat of a risk.
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Moeen Ali has performed admirably in his 16 Tests for England to date, taking 45 wickets and averaging 31 with the bat. The jury is still out as to whether he can really operate as England’s main spinner in the long-term, but the UAE presents him with the opportunity to share the workload with Adil Rashid and to bat on flatter pitches.
Used as an opener in white ball cricket for Worcestershire and England, he is not a total novice to the concept. However, he is severely lacking in experience against the new red ball. While swing and seam will be less of a factor in the UAE, he will still have to face genuine pace in the form of Junaid Khan, Wahab Riaz and Rahat Ali and success is not guaranteed. His documented struggles with the short ball will no doubt be probed by Pakistan, particularly after he was dismissed while attempting a hook shot in the first tour match.
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Despite his lack of experience and potential weak areas, I don’t believe he will let England down. His inclusion at the top of the order makes perfect sense for the balance of the team on this tour. It allows Rashid to slot into Ali’s old spot at number eight, adding another front-line spinner without sacrificing one of a three-pronged seam attack.
The thinking on behalf of the England selectors is sound, but with the following tour to South Africa in mind it could leave the side vulnerable. While Moeen may be a quick fix at the top on flat tracks, opening against Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander and Morne Steyn at Newlands is a different prospect altogether. A more specialist opener will be required in these circumstances.
Alex Hales has had a successful county season and has a right to feel aggrieved if he misses out on Tuesday. Touted by many as England’s answer to David Warner, the Notts man could be forgiven for thinking that inclusion in this touring squad as one of two specialist openers, would ultimately result in his first opportunity in the Test arena.
For me, even if Hales does not participate in this series, he will deserve the first opportunity in South Africa. Regardless, by making a ‘horses for courses’ selection in promoting Moeen for the UAE, England leave themselves open. They will start in Durban on Boxing Day either with a makeshift opener who struggles with the short ball or an unproven debutant.
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