For Whom The Bell Tolls?
It’s hard not to feel like there hasn’t been a little bit of an overreaction to England’s loss at The Oval.
Pakistan came to the UK with a seam bowling attack capable of challenging, one of the games best spinners and, despite some weakness at the very top of the order, a competitive batting line up containing two of cricket’s most experienced players.
Perhaps it is because there is now such a substantial gap between Tests. The loss at Lords was quickly washed away by success at Old Trafford, but England will not play Test cricket again until October, if the tour of Bangladesh goes ahead, and thus people have time to dwell on defeat.
Right now, many would have what could be termed a ‘clear out’. A spring clean of the England squad before they head to the sub continent.
This feels radical. Knee jerk.
The dust will settle, many of these concerns will fade. But one area which does appear in need of attention in the coming weeks is England’s middle order.
Despite the lack of a big score, Alex Hales has shown signs of improvement technically – which is perhaps more than could be said of predecessor Adam Lyth – and he contributed to a key partnership with Alastair Cook during the Third Test.
After numerous changes at the top of the order since Andrew Strauss retired, maybe it’s time to let someone settle in the role.
Likewise moving Root to three was largely successful, with the a fantastic double hundred coming in Manchester, and there seems little reason to move the Yorkshire star from the position.
But then the questions begin.
James Vince passed 35 in three of his seven innings, but failed to register a half century and, perhaps more worryingly, did not seem to learn from his mistakes as the series progressed.
While the Hampshire man scored more runs than Alex Hales, he showed none of the improvement and may simply have run out of rope – at least for now.
Likewise many remain unconvinced by Gary Ballance, who was picked ahead of Durham’s Scott Borthwick for the Pakistan series. The 26-year-old did register a useful 70 at Edgbaston however and still boasts a Test average of 43.40.
But with Ben Stokes to come back in to the side and the likelihood that England will go with a second spinner in Bangladesh (if they go) and India, the numbers are unlikely to add up for Ballance and Vince.
But how England reconfigure their lineup ahead of the first winter Test remains a point of debate.
Cook, Root, Johnny Bairstow, Moeen Ali, Stokes, Chris Woakes and James Anderson effectively pick themselves. For hypothetical purposes, Hales remains while Adil Rashid gets the nod as England’s second spinner – leaving the eleven looking something like this:
Moving Moeen Ali to five makes sense. He’s a batsmen who bowls, no matter how England try to dress it up, and registered two centuries this summer. The failed experiment to insert him as an opener in the UAE last Autumn should not deter England from pushing him back up the order, where he probably belongs at this point.
Stuart Broad, Steven Finn, Jake Ball and Mark Wood could all stake a claim for the number ten spot – personally I’d stick with Broad, or failing that side with those who believe Wood should get a recall, but all four come with their own pros and cons.
The greater argument comes when it comes to picking England’s number four.
With Test hundreds to his name, an argument can still be made for Ballance retaining his spot in the team, and a number of well placed analysts believe his temperament and mental strength are well suited to a) Test cricket and b) riding out a rough spell.
Jos Buttler is also a candidate, though it’s hard to imagine him at four – so do England move Moeen and Bairstow further up the order to accommodate him? Or is that a step too far?
Likewise Jason Roy, a prolific scorer in limited over cricket, remains somewhat unaccomplished in the longer format. Some would say this should not be a barrier to his selection, others would err on the side of caution. Currently I’d side with the latter.
Somerset’s James Hildreth is frequently mentioned, after years of Championship success. He’ll almost certainly reach 1,000 runs again this season, but does not seem to hold much favour with the England selectors.
Lancashire’s Haseeb Hameed, who is having a sensational season as a 19-year-old, has been mentioned but is more likely to be a replacement for Hales if/when the time comes.
As hard as some would like to pull for Tom Westley or Sam Northeast, it’s difficult to see England picking someone from Division Two to go to India – the gap is simply too big, perceived or otherwise.
Perhaps, with India in mind and with a nod to Pakistan’s two elder statesmen – who played integral roles in each of the tourists wins this summer – England simply needs to swallow some pride.
The terrible pun in the title and lead image probably give the game away at this point; but Ian Bell’s 118 Test’s worth of experience perhaps trump anything any other candidate can conjure up at this point.
Accusations of it being a step backwards will be cast, but Younus and Misbah provided a rather eloquent lesson in never ruling someone out based on age and, despite a broadly indifferent season for Warwickshire, Bell has been to India before, boasts a Test average of 42.69 and may just be the best option England have right now.
Over time the Ducketts, Westleys, Hameeds and Gubbins of this world may continued to advance their careers and stake a more substantial claim for a place in the England side. But in the here and now, with a major test of England’s Test mettle on the horizon, an old hand could be just what the team needs.