A busy summer awaits for the England Test team. Having narrowly missed out on World T20 glory, the focus now switches to the longest form of the game, with a three-match Test series against Sri Lanka starting in May and a four-match series taking place against Pakistan across July and August.
After a mixed winter suffering defeat to Pakistan in the U.A.E before triumphing over then number one ranked South Africa, the selectors have several difficult decisions to make in the batting department. Several spots are still up for grabs with only a few weeks to go until the squad announcement.
Jonny Bairstow's breakthrough South Africa tour and magnificent early season 246 for Yorkshire cements his position behind the blossoming Ben Stokes at number seven. One half of the opening partnership will be filled by skipper Alastair Cook and another top order position by the shining light of English cricket, Joe Root.
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Taking these certainties into account, there are still three places up for grabs in the top six, with the unexpected enforced retirement of James Taylor at the age of just 26, leaving a hole at number five in addition to the number two and three berths.
In South Africa, Alex Hales was the most recent in a long line of opening partners for Captain Cook since the retirement of Andrew Strauss. Averaging just 17 across those four tests, Hales failed to impress, but his dynamic style and subsequent form in the white ball format means he is still in the frame.
Having chosen to rest for Nottinghamshire's first two County Championship fixtures, he has heaped pressure on himself to perform over the next few weeks. Should he fail in both of Notts’ upcoming fixtures it would be even more difficult to justify his continued selection.
The other contenders for the vacant opening spot are Nick Compton, Sam Robson and Adam Lyth. Despite Lyth already recording a first-class 111 against Hampshire, he is the least likely of the three to earn a call-up. An average of 20 from seven Test appearances and a whole series of failures in last summer’s Ashes, suggests a prolific County run-getter who is not quite good enough for the international arena.
Sam Robson has experienced a perfect start to the season with Middlesex. His 231 and 106 in each innings of their home fixture against Warwickshire was a club record and a timely early season nudge to the selectors. However, his glut of runs did come against an understrength Warwickshire attack and his few chances at international level have shown the Aussie-born opener's crouching technique to be susceptible to out and out pace. His inclusion against Sri Lanka would be a risk, but further impressive domestic performances may make him difficult to overlook.
A final opening candidate is Nick Compton. Another Middlesex employee, Compton had a relatively underwhelming series in his native South Africa after notching promising scores of 85 and 44 in the first test at Durban. In his 13 tests to date, he has the highest average of the candidates (31) and while not such a free flowing batsman, his patient, accumulating style leaves Compton as the most solid option at the top of the order.
Moving past the openers; while experimenting with batting positions is often not recommended in the longest format, this summer is the perfect opportunity to elevate Joe Root to number three. Root is undoubtedly England's best player and a promotion would allow him an earlier opportunity to stamp his authority on proceedings.
Such a promotion would leave places four and five open for the taking. At the moment, there are three genuine candidates for these two spots; Gary Ballance, James Vince and Ian Bell.
On first glance, it appears strange that a man who averages 47 in 15 Tests would find himself out of the side, but that is Ballance’s current situation. After an excellent start to life at the top level, the Yorkshire player experienced a series of embarrassingly tame dismissals when confronted with genuine pace for the first time.
Having made some minor technical adjustments since then, Ballance will be seeking to gain a second opportunity at the top level. Big scores over the coming weeks for his county are required, but failings of 12 and 4 against Hampshire were an unpromising start. Until he has proved himself once again on the domestic circuit, any international recall may bring some vulnerability to England’s top order.
James Vince is the new Hampshire captain in four-day cricket and is one of the most promising young English talents in all forms of the game. Having had a taste of the international arena in One Day and T20 cricket, it may well be time for the 25-year-old to step up in Tests.
A positive stroke-maker, he would add impetus and freshness to the middle order. If he can follow up his serene century against Yorkshire with more runs in the coming weeks, he would be worthy of a chance to state his case against Sri Lanka.
The final middle order candidate is Ian Bell, one of the best English batsmen of his generation. England’s top run-scorer of all time in ODI’s and holder of 22 Test match hundreds, the newly appointed Warwickshire captain’s class cannot be doubted. Now aged 34, his omission from the squad to tour South Africa signalled the end of a career for many, but coach Bayliss and Captain Cook stressed that his international days were not necessarily over.
Several great batsmen like Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene continued to churn out Test match runs into their late 30s and Bell is not past it quite yet. Scores of 174 against Hampshire and 59 against reigning champions Yorkshire show a man in form and one hungry to add to his 118 Test appearances. To be able to recall a player of such calibre is a luxury few countries have at their disposal and one suspects he would be the player on this list the Sri Lankans would least relish bowling to.
With two rounds of county fixtures remaining before the first Test, there is still some jostling to be done amongst the many England hopefuls. However, this is the side I would pick to kick off the international summer at Headingley:
1. Alastair Cook 2. Nick Compton 3. Joe Root 4. Ian Bell 5. James Vince 6. Ben Stokes 7. Jonny Bairstow 8. Moeen Ali 9. Stuart Broad 10. James Anderson 11. Steven Finn.
Do you agree or disagree with this line-up? Are there any other star domestic performers you believe deserve a chance?