Here we are, nearly one week on from a humiliating defeat and a humiliating few weeks if we’re all honest but in less than a month we get to go back to the infamous circuit. Except this time around it feels as if there’s a lot to play for.
There will be 8 rounds of County Championship cricket before the first England test of the summer against the Kiwis and those 8 rounds could be make or break for certain players. In this post I’ll be looking at a few positions in the current England test side and who, with a few hundred runs under their belt, can either cement their place or stake a claim to be competing against the number 1 ranked side in the world after the first 8 rounds. In essence ladies and gents we have a standoff *insert western musical sting and tumbleweed*.
As ever with English cricket post Strauss we are looking for an opener. Sibley and Burns are both good players and will see these opening rounds as a chance to really cement their place in the side. Neither had an impressive winter and Burns was dropped after 4 innings whilst Sibley was the only batsmen bar the skipper to play all the tests over the winter. Both are good players of pace bowling who have done it in England for England but also for their respective counties. Chances are they will be opening with each other come the first test but if one them doesn’t deliver the goods at their counties and someone else does, well it could all together be a different story. The most likely of the 2 to lose their spot would be Burns but he is a run machine for Surrey and I can’t see it being much different for this opening 8 rounds. For Sibley well it’s about refreshing the mind and delivering the same sort of form that got him selected in the first place.
Now there aren’t many names about who really could be in with a shout of opening and the most promising would probably be Sibley's Warwickshire partner Will Rhodes who would most likely replace Burns. Rhodes is a solid batsmen coming off the back of an impressive 2020 in which he struck 816 runs at an average of 50. Not only is he a similar age to Sibley but naturally the 2 know each other and having that prebuilt partnership could be a real help to England. If Rhodes manages to go big in the early rounds whilst one of the two incumbent men don’t I wouldn’t be surprised to see him in and around the setup.
Haseeb Hameed is another player who with a good run of games under his belt could be seen as someone who England will be keen to reintegrate (not in the KP manner mind you). We all know how good Hameed is and I do think we all want to see Hameed back in England whites at least once more in his playing career and hopefully this is the year we see it happen. Hameed is a classy player and still only 23 and we can all agree that seeing him as an opener would bring a collective smile to everyone's face.
Of course there are always the romantic names that pop up; there are those we all want to happen but we know won’t. Of course in an ideal world Tom Lammonby scores 8 hundreds in the Championship opens against New Zealand pummels Southee for 6 first ball and then scores a double on debut… But more realistically if Lammonby carries on his good form from last season then I can see no reason for him not to be involved in either the main set up or definitely the Lions. Lammonby looks a class act and we all know it but England need not rush his development.
A true outsides shout is Ben Duckett. Duckett (like Hameed) last featured in test match cricket in the 2016 tour to India although he was a part of the 2017/18 Ashes squad but that didn’t exactly go down well. Since then Duckett has really kicked on and averaged 50 opening the batting last year whilst also winning Notts a T20 trophy. Whilst 8 rounds of the championship most likely will not be enough for Duckett to make a real claim this could be the start of a big year for the Notts batsmen.
Say Burns was to fail, another perfectly legitimate option would be Zak Crawley. Crawley will open for Kent and if he can truly hit his strides and hit maybe 3 tons by the start of the test summer my money would be on Crawley walking out with Sibley. Of course if Crawley were to open it leaves a hole in the form of the number 3 spot and well that one's a bit more complicated. Number 3:
Traditionally number 3 is where your best batsmen plays, think Ponting or Bradman. Well as you’d expect England don’t work like that and their best batsmen (Joe Root) seems unable to click together the formula of runs and batting at number 3 (an average of 38 is nowhere near good enough). England have been searching for a test match number 3 since 2014 and whilst I do believe they have found one in Zak Crawley. But with England quite clearly seeing Crawley as a long term opener the position is still very much up for grabs and there’s a whole host of names who could viable batting first drop come the summer. Quickfire round! (or at least an attempt of one)
One name on the list is someone who’s been there and done it; Joe Denly. Denly is someone who I am a huge fan of (meme team lower your guns don’t worry) and is one of the most prolific county run makers, especially in recent times. Denly is someone who can slot in at number 3 and even drop up or down a few positions. Temperament was the big issue last time with Joe and he did get bogged down by the spinners, however I have full faith if he played now with a bit more freedom there would be far more success. England value Denly and after a winter made up of collapses Denly and in turn the infamous ‘Dentury’ will be ever more appealing to Ed Smith as that Dukes ball gets closer to Tim Southee's palms.
Keeping in a similar vein of modern day county statesmen James Vince is another who could strum his way to a few tons and come the first test be donning England whites. Whilst Ed Smith has made it pretty clear that Vince will almost certainly never play for England in test cricket whilst he is selector, well…. It’s Vince. I mean who can resist the most beautiful 25 you’ve ever seen and what else do we need except the anxiety we all get as he just begins to look good. We all know how good Vince can be and I don’t think there’s a single cricket fan out there who wouldn’t want to see James Vince in full flow in England whites. Not only this but Vince is also regarded as one of the better players of spins on the circuit and after what happened (I simply will not discuss it) he is looking more and more appealing by the hour.
My personal pick through nothing but innate bias is Garry Ballance. Ballance has been there done it was pretty good at it then not as good at it then just a bit meh at it. Yet I can’t help but feel he has unfinished business with the England test side. Ballance is up there with the best county run makers of recent times and he boasts an impressive first class average of 50. Ballance knows the number 3 role and he knows test cricket he was after all the 3rd fastest Englishman to 1000 test match runs. Yes he had issues in 2015 and 2016 but he has improved demonstrably as a batsmen and is in his prime and I have no doubt he will be making big runs in the early season for Yorkshire; if ever there was a time for a recall surely it is now.
Those 3 may be the more obvious choices but now we get into the real meat and potatoes.
Ollie Pope is someone who naturally is almost destined to bat in the top 3. He is, arguably, England's most technically secure batsmen and with the ability to defend and attack with ease he could make a truly world class test match number 3. If I was Pope I would be telling Alec Stewart to put me in at 3 and try to gain as much experience as possible at first drop and also secure some runs in the arena in which Pope has been so dominant. Let's be honest if Pope bats 3 for Surrey and has 4 big hundreds coming into the first test I do believe I speak on behalf of every England fan when I say. Get him in lads! Next in line from Pope (some would say he pips the Surrey man after his solid end to the winter) is Dan Lawrence who himself could have a real shot at batting 3 by the end of the summer. Although if Pope is in at first drop this does allow England to have both men in the same side. Lawrence was shunted up the order against India for no apparent reason and it did his confidence no good. But back in County Cricket Lawrence could make a real claim for the first drop spot especially after his aforementioned strong end to the winter. If I was Lawrence I would be asking my skipper to do a quick swapover.
The last and most unrealistic choice is all of the aforementioned openers (Rhodes, Hameed, Lammonby and Duckett). All of them offer something different that can set them apart although I cannot seriously see any of them claiming that first drop spot over anyone else who has been mentioned. Hameed, Lammonby and Duckett are also all regarded as good players of spin and this, as stated before, could definitely draw Ed Smith's eye.
The backup seamer:
The role of backup seamer is far far more like a shootout than either the opener and or the number 3 position as it is quite simply between 2 men. Craig Overton and Ollie Robinson. Both very similar bowlers who offer similar attributes are stood, guns by their side ready to draw. Robinson may seem more the man who holds the position and in my opinion this is the right call. In case you didn’t know, I am a huge Ollie Robinson fan and am the CEO of the Ollie Robinson fan club (it’s tough being CEO of the ORFC and the Shubman Gill fan club). Robinson has an outstanding record in domestic cricket albeit in division 2 but his 7 for at the Mcg showed why England are so keen to have him in and around the set up, I mean they did recall him to the bio bubble for seemingly no reasons in the summer after all. If you want to hear me ramble about Robinson there’s bound to be a lot of it throughout the blog. A good start to the season for Robinson could very well see him earn his test cap.
Overton is a funny one. Seemingly done at international level after a less than inspiring performance during his Ashes recall in 2019 Overton in 2020 was a different beast. Leading wicket taker in the Bob Willis trophy and by all reports having earned that ever wanted yard of pace that could see him just pip his Sussex counterpart to the spot. Overton's ability with the bat could also play a huge factor in him getting selected against New Zealand with England potentially missing all 3 of their first choice all rounders to the IPL.
So if I was in Ed Smiths shoes my pre emptive squad for the first test would look a little something like this. 1. Zak Crawley/Rory Burns
2. Dom Sibley
3. Garry Ballance/Zak Crawley
4. Joe Root
5. Ollie Pope/Dan Lawrence.
6. Ben Foakes
7. Craig Overton
8. Ollie Robinson
9. Jack Leach
10. Stuart Broad
11. Jimmy Anderson
Yes I really am breaking up the standoff to form a mutual bond over a heavy ball on the top of off. For me I would have Crawley and Sibley open but of course if Burns is in the runs, as he so often is for Surrey, or if he simply gets a haircut I would have him in the side. Garry Ballance would slot in at 3 if Crawley opens if not well then the Yorkshireman would be reserves. It’s a straight shootout at number 5 between Pope and Lawrence and will just have to see how it goes. As ever after a disastrous winter the County Championship feels exciting and as if there’s everything to play for.
Do you agree with my picks? Do you feel I’ve missed anyone out? Who do you think will make a real statement of intent in these opening rounds? Let me know either by commenting below or on Twitter @therunoutblog1.