@Ben_Wisden 4 minute read
Zak Crawley’s dismissal for 17 on the third evening against New Zealand marked an improvement of sorts, but one that only served to highlight how much he has struggled this year at No.3 in Test cricket for England.
In 2021, he has only once made a higher score, in a drive-filled 53 against India at Chennai, and since making 267 against Pakistan last summer, he averages just 10.25 in Tests. Even with that knock included, his overall average is 29.33. He remains a hugely talented player, and his technique looks suited for Australia and the Ashes. But it might well be that England choose to remove him from the firing line, if only for the time being.
If Chris Silverwood does choose to go in another direction, there are plenty of options to do so.
The possible promotions
When in doubt, push Joe Root to first drop. It should make sense. He’s the most technically assured, naturally talented and, well, the best English batsman of his generation. Earlier this year, he looked to be in the form of his life. The problem is, he doesn’t like batting there, and his record is worse there too. An option only as a last resort.
Better suited against seam than against spin, technically sound in defence and capable of digging in or counter-attacking as required, there are plenty who feel Ben Stokes can be England’s Jacques Kallis. In the last few years, he’s finally started to turn his obvious talent into consistent returns. However, the freedom which comes from batting at No.5 could be lessened if shunted up to first-drop, and he does still need to shoulder a significant bowling load on occasion.
Ollie Pope has been anointed as England’s long-term No.3 for a while, with the caveat that the promotion can only come when he’s ready. He’s rated by many as the most talented England have produced since Joe Root, and at its best, his technique evokes the picture-perfect stylings of Ian Bell. But Pope is far from at his best right now, with his off-stump guard regularly dissected by the pundits and apparently leaving him open to being trapped in front. He might be a top-order bat one day, but asking him to do so now would be hugely unfair.
Dan Lawrence’s technique is about as far from the textbook as it’s possible to be, but he has now shown his wristy, homespun method can be effective both at home and in the subcontinent. His first-innings 81* dug England out of a hole, and he has batted at No.3 for Essex at times before. Similarly to Pope, a promotion would feel premature, but it would at least allow England to keep both in the XI when Stokes returns.
Had Ben Foakes not slipped in his socks on the Surrey dressing room floor, James Bracey would be inked in as England’s No.3-in-waiting. He has one of the best defensive techniques on the county circuit, has impressed England’s coaches while bubbled up, and put together an impressive start to the 2021 season. But three innings, albeit in an unusual role and with the added burden of the gloves, have brought two ducks and an average of 2.66. Arguably, if he was England’s next best top-order option three innings ago, that should still be true now. But he could hardly have done much more to harm his case.
The options outside of the team
You won’t need reminding of Haseeb Hameed’s story, the other top-order batsman in the England squad. Finally back in form, perhaps the slight shielding No.3 would give him is the route to easing his path back into the England side. The question is whether England do feel he is ready, mentally and technically, for a return. His inclusion in the squad for this series suggests they do, so this option might not be so farfetched.
While he did bat at No.3 two Test matches ago, a recall for Jonny Bairstow would be a long shot. His travails against India only emphasised how far his Test form has fallen away, and his selection for that tour was largely down to his proficiency against spin. Bairstow against Jasprit Bumrah and Co. on a green seamer with a fresh Dukes in hand hardly bears thinking about.
Dawid Malan might just be the perfect stop-gap. He has a Test ton, and hardly disgraced himself in his first stint. He has recent international form behind him in T20Is. His county form is exceptional. And, looking ahead, his backfoot game is well-suited to Australian conditions.
Highly rated, a mature head on young-ish shoulders, and finally coming good on his considerable talent, there’s lots to like about Tom Abell. His overall record isn’t exceptional, but that’s largely down to playing at Taunton and having come through some tough stretches. His lack of consistent big scores is the last box he needs to tick, but being able to dig your team out of a hole with a timely 70-odd is an underrated quality, and it’s one Abell possesses.
A player who does know a thing or two about batting long is Jake Libby, who earlier this season came within a few minutes of playing out the longest County Championship knock since records began. He is the second leading run-scorer in the competition this season, and averaged more than 50 last year too. England have in the past been happy to simply pick the domestic game’s most in-form opener to bat in the top-order. At the moment, that’s Jake Libby.
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