Alastair Cook’s eighth opening partner since Andrew Strauss’ retirement, Alex Hales, has not set the world alight with his performances in South Africa.
Hales’ position could be in doubt unless he puts in a stellar performance in the final Test, even in spite of England’s historic series win, their first away from home in five tours.
Four of Hales’ six dismissals have seen him caught in the slips while fishing outside off stump. New South Africa captain AB de Villiers has snaffled the Nottinghamshire batsmen on each of his first innings outings. This all points to a huge issue for a Test opener – his technique when facing balls on an off-side fourth or fifth stump line isn’t up to scratch.
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It is also worth remembering that Hales has only had to face leader of the South Africa attack, Dale Steyn in just one of the three matches so far. To put the boot in further, when Hales could have achieved an average and confidence boosting not-out in his most recent innings, he was dismissed by part-time spinner Dean Elgar.
Worryingly for Hales, Cook’s partner prior to the Moeen Ali experiment in the UAE also suffered from the same issue. That man, Adam Lyth, was dropped after England won the Ashes in 2015. Seven of Lyth's first eight Test innings ended in catches behind the stumps. See a pattern here?
Going on previous, the selectors are not afraid to shun a man part of a winning setup, and Hales is in danger of the same happening to him.
In international white ball cricket, when there are less or even no slips, Hales can and has flourished. Moving slightly towards leg opens up the off-side and, therefore, increases scoring opportunities. This is evidently not applicable to the red ball format.
Hales’ promotion to the Test team is arguably in light of England’s new approach that places a large emphasis on the limited-overs form of the game. He is the only man to register both a T20 and an ODI century wearing the Three Lions shirt.
His’ second international century came in a fine display in the ODI series against Pakistan in November and is perhaps what cemented his place at the top of the order against South Africa. This is in contrast to the past, where quite often if you impressed the selectors at Test level, your name was automatically penned in for the one-day squad - Cook being a prime example of this.
Interestingly, Hales started the County Championship season batting at number three for Nottinghamshire. It was in this position that he struck a career-best 236 against champions Yorkshire. It was only later in the campaign that he was promoted to open the batting. He also succeeded at the top of the order, most notably hitting his way to 189 in an innings win over Warwickshire in August.
So if Hales fails in the dead rubber at Centurion, what are the alternatives going forward? Looking at the current squad, Nick Compton could make the step up again, with Gary Ballance being reinstated at number three.
Aside from Joe Root who flourishes lower down the order, Compton is Cook’s most successful opening foil. He scored 479 runs, including two centuries, at an average of 31.93 while partnering the England skipper.
Unless Adam Lyth starts the new season well enough to earn him a recall, Essex’s Nick Browne seems to be the only other option after an impressive 2015 as an opener. He scored five centuries on his way to a season total of 1157 runs. However, he has only played 29 first-class matches in his short career so the selectors may not want to take a punt on him. Forgotten man Sam Robson had a poor campaign last term, but will also hope to throw his name in the hat for a recall once the 2016 season kicks off.
Critics who said Lyth was given the axe too early would be quick to make the same claims again should Hales fail to impress and find his head on the chopping block.
England have a proud history when it comes to Test openers, with nine of the top scoring openers in Test history. It is, therefore, an issue that England and the selectors need to resolve, and fast.
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