England D' 'Door' S Part Of A Larger Malaise > Cricket News, cricinfo, mobilecric, cricbuzz, livescore and more
Cricket news - England's 'revolving door' part of a wider malaise
With the possible exceptions of Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union and manager at Manchester United, the toughest gig in Great Britain these last few years has been opening the batting for the England Test team.
Since the retirement of Andrew Strauss in August 2012, there are few British media outlets that haven't run a click-harvesting photo gallery of Alastair Cook's many opening partners, a list comprising Nick Compton, Joe Root, Michael Carberry, Sam Robson, Jonathan Trott, Adam Lyth, Moeen Ali, Alex Hales, Ben Duckett, Haseeb Hameed, Keaton Jennings and Mark Stoneman. With Cook himself now retired, Rory Burns, Joe Denly, Jason Roy and Jack Leach have been added to the list. Throw in Jos Buttler, opening once with Moeen in the UAE, and that's 18 different post-Strauss openers in 18 different combinations. Which is a lot of churn for seven years' cricket.
The current lack of viable alternatives - the uncapped Dom Sibley of Warwickshire and Zak Crawley of Kent are widely admired but, perhaps wisely, are being kept from the white-heat of a live Ashes struggle - has meant that England have simply opted to switch Joe Denly and Jason Roy's positions in the line-up for this week's fourth Test at Old Trafford. Roy is a world-class white-ball opener and a man of undeniable presence at the crease, but most good judges were sceptical that his hard-hands technique would survive an examination by Cummins, Hazlewood, Pattinson and crew armed with a new red Duke's. And they were right. Picking Roy to open seems, then and now, like a slightly desperate roll of the dice. After all, he doesn't even open for Surrey in Championship cricket.
What are the conclusions to be drawn here? Does Roy being the latest man bundled through the 'revolving door' betoken some wider cultural or systemic failure with the English game, a seeming inability of anyone to step up and nail down the spot, a lack of faith among the selectors that there is anyone left in the cupboard?
Are we seeing the twilight of the specialist red-ball opener, the slow erasure of that precise, soft-handed, bounce-riding, ball-leaving, dogged skill-set? Are the incentives for developing a dynamic T20 game - from simply ensuring a county deal to accessing the potential riches of the franchise circuit for the emerging stars - now so deeply embedded in the culture that the type of watchful, judicious batting that might yet have prospered in the first three Ashes Tests is becoming obsolete or extinct?
The former England opener Rob Key repudiates the idea. "You talk about white-ball cricket, but most of the people England have tried - Compton, Stoneman, Hameed, etc - they are specialist red-ball openers. Some of them barely played domestic one-day cricket. Whatever type of cricketer they've gone for, it hasn't worked," Key tells Cricbuzz.
Even so, the influence of white-ball cricket might be as much mental as technical, the 'contamination' less about forgetting soft-hands defence than a simple failure to adapt one's approach, a stubborn belief that the white-ball game's generous re-calibration of risk and imperative to attack before too long can be transposed to the red-ball game without compromise or modification.
Indeed, the dilemma for Roy (and other players of his ilk parachuted into Test cricket after excelling in the white-ball game) can be summarised in a phrase often heard from their advocates. "That's just the way he plays. You have to take the rough with the smooth." But isn't this simply a licence not to adapt?
The way he plays encompasses not only technique (how the body moves, the sweep of the hands, things that are difficult to alter, certainly in a week or two) but also decision-making, which is essentially 'feedback' on the way the body moves: being self-aware, self-denying, pragmatically adaptive rather than idealistically wedded to the notion that 'This Is The Way I Bat', which for Kumar Sangakkara (12,400 Test runs at 57.4) was total bunkum. Each innings is different. Your job is to solve problems.
"People like Jason Roy and David Warner are supremely talented, aggressive players," says Key, "but you're banking on them to adapt. Not to play like Geoff Boycott, but to adapt to the situation, as Ben Stokes showed [at Headingley]. He scored 2 off 65 balls: first, because he was playing for the close and then, in the morning, because he was ensuring he was there for the second new ball. Then he found another gear with Johnny Bairstow and another again when he was batting with Jack Leach. Proper Test match batting, mixed with skills from white-ball cricket. Given a bit of luck and enough opportunity, Jason Roy has the talent to adapt. Whoever you are, you shouldn't be batting at one tempo all the time. If someone bowls well at you, you might not score a run for five or six overs. "
Key believes that if there is one obvious systemic or cultural factor in English domestic cricket that might be adversely affecting the production of technically sound openers able to transition to Test cricket, it is the much-maligned county cricket schedule, increasingly front-loaded to allow as much white-ball cricket as possible in the warmer months of July and August. So what's the solution?
"I'd play less four-day cricket and make it the best conditions you possibly can at a better time of year," argues Key. "I'd rather play eight quality games with better preparation for the players and more time to get the pitches right than having eight games crammed into the first two months of the season when the ball's going to go everywhere. If you had a completely blank slate, you'd start with eight games of first-class cricket, whether that's counties, regions or whatever. Quality rather than quantity, still with enough time for all your white-ball cricket."
Perhaps this is why so many have tried and failed to nail down the opener's spot for England. But here's the thing with that 'revolving door': since Strauss retired, Australia have actually had more different opening combinations than England, albeit with only 13 players making up their 20 pairings (Warner, Cowan, Watson, Maxwell, Rogers, S Marsh, Smith, Burns, Khawaja, Renshaw, Bancroft, Finch, Harris). Sri Lanka have also had 20 pairings and Pakistan 21. But then, no other side has played as much Test cricket as England over this period and, when you look at the average number of innings per pair, only New Zealand (15.71), South Africa (10.09) and West Indies (9.91) have been more stable at the top of the order than 'revolving door' England (9.22).
TEST OPENING PARTNERS SINCE AUGUST 2012
To a large degree, this is because Tom Latham, Dean Elgar and Kraigg Brathwaite have been close to ever-present for their respective teams and undoubtedly England's picture would been much worse had Cook not been around. However, perhaps England's top-order productivity hasn't been quite as dire as has been thought by the selectors, or by the commentariat and wider public whose noise so often influence the former.
True, England's average opening partnership in the last seven years (the post-Strauss period) is 32.13, which puts them a disappointing sixth on the list, below Australia (45.72), India (36.67), New Zealand (34.29), Bangladesh (34.03) and South Africa (32.86). Relatively speaking, a significant distance from Australia but not too far behind the rest.
However, the overall average opening partnership - all countries combined - for the whole 2010s currently sits at 34.62, the lowest figure for any decade since the 1900s. The next closest is the 1950s, when it was 34.74. During the 2000s, by contrast, this figure stood at 40.05, the highest since the 1940s. Perhaps all this tells us that it has been an exceptionally difficult decade for opening batsmen.
"It's not like teams are getting bowled out for 150 and the opposition is getting 500-plus," says Key. "I just think, at the moment, it's not an easy time to be a batsman. And the hardest place to bat is opening. It can't be that nobody can play anymore. We say as pundits that the game's much better when the ball dominates the bat so you have to accept that, actually, if that's the case then it's going to be pretty tough for batsmen."
AVERAGE TEST OPENING PARTNERSHIP BY DECADE
Finding the ultimate reasons for all this requires another, fuller conversation, although one could speculate that DRS has had something of an effect. It has certainly fed back into techniques against spin but maybe also against the new ball, where openers are reluctant to play slightly outside the line to cover the swing. Perhaps, too, there's less willingness among boards and curators to create bland pitches guaranteed to go into the fourth and fifth day.
What does seem reasonable to suggest is that we are in a particularly rich era of fast and/or seam bowling. Just as the 1990s is considered an exceptionally strong decade for the quicks - with Ambrose/Walsh, Wasim/Waqar, Donald/Pollock, McGrath/Gillespie, even Gough/Caddick on the circuit - which was reflected in the fact that the average opening partnership (36.52) was lower than the preceding three decades and the one that followed, so too might the 2010s confirm an abundance of world-class pacemen. Generational talents such as Jasprit Bumrah, Jofra Archer, Mohammad Abbas and Kagiso Rabada have emerged in the last couple of years; Australia have an embarrassment of riches in Cummins, Hazlewood, Starc and Pattinson; elite operators such as James Anderson, Trent Boult, Kemar Roach and Vernon Philander have spanned a decade that started with peak Dale Steyn and Mitchell Johnson bulldozing teams; and the likes of Stuart Broad, Mohammed Shami, Morne Morkel and Tim Southee haven't been too shabby.
Perhaps it is time to manage our expectations, then. On which note, in the post-Strauss period, there have been 41 pairs to have opened together in Tests on at least ten occasions. Only three have averaged over 50 runs per partnership. The highest average belongs to Imrul Kayes and Tamim Iqbal (58.26). In third place is the most productive in terms of aggregate runs: David Warner and Chris Rogers (2053 runs at 51.32). And second? That's Alastair Cook and Nick Compton, the first pair England tried after Strauss' retirement, who in 17 opening partnerships averaged 57.93 together.
"People always said we were too similar to each other," Compton reflects, "which I always thought was absolute nonsense." Perhaps, with the benefit of hindsight, it is time to re-think. In the meantime, the English ecosystem will roll on, with various pressures and opportunities blindly shaping the development of future generations. Undoubtedly, the environment will increasingly 'select' for six-hitting dynamism, but perhaps there's also an attractive, remunerative niche silently drawing the players of the future toward orthodox technical excellence.
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