If England need a McCullum-ready top-order option, Ben Duckett ticks all the boxes
@Yas_Wisden 5 minute read
Ben Duckett is deserving of an extended run in the England Test side, writes Yas Rana.
Next week, it will have been 10 years since Andrew Strauss announced his retirement from Test cricket.
In that time, 22 players have opened the batting for England with only Alastair Cook, himself now retired from international cricket for four years, averaging more than 32 among the batters to do the job for more than six Tests. No one in that time, Cook aside, has more than three hundreds from the top of the order.
This November will mark nine years since Jonathan Trott last batted three for England. While there has been the odd moment where England have looked to have found a long-term option at three, they have been fleeting. Joe Root and Gary Ballance both have scored four Test hundreds from three, but the former has repeatedly expressed his preference to bat at four and the latter hasn’t batted three for England in five years and has now gone nearly a year without a first-class appearance. Ollie Pope is making a decent fist of it this summer without having had any professional experience of batting at three, but it’s too early to tell if that will be his best long-term position.
England’s top-order problems have plagued a succession of coaches and captains. If the decade-long search for Strauss’ replacement has taught us anything, it’s that the perfect candidate doesn’t exist; punts have to be made and trade-offs accepted. Right now, there are calls for England to drop one of their underperforming openers, Zak Crawley, a man who averages a meagre 18.61 from his last 18 Tests; it is a mark of England’s instability at the top that Crawley – the man whose place is supposedly under the most threat – actually boasts a higher career average than his partner Alex Lees.
Given England’s perpetual struggles up top, the length of time since Ben Duckett’s last Test is becoming increasingly striking. Back in 2016, Duckett was called up at the age of 21 following an outstanding breakout year in domestic cricket, one that saw him pile on 2,706 run across formats. He batted seven times in Test cricket, falling to the spin of either of Ravichandran Ashwin, Shakib Al Hasan or Mehidy Hasan Miraz on each occasion.
Duckett went back to county cricket and averaged 42.05 for Northamptonshire the following summer. After a poor 2018, he moved to Nottinghamshire for whom he averages 45.31 after 45 matches. In his most recent red-ball game, Duckett reeled off a 168-ball 145 for England Lions against South Africa. Now 27, Duckett averages 41.57 in first-class cricket – in 2022, that number rises to 72.28. The only active English first-class cricketers who average more than Duckett, with a cut-off of 50 first-class games, are Joe Root, Jonny Bairstow, Ollie Pope, Alastair Cook, Gary Ballance.
If England are looking for players who are naturally aggressive, Duckett, whose career first-class strike rate is exactly 72, fits the bill. He has the game to attack balls that others would leave well alone and does so without encouragement. It is worth stating, though, that his overall record is perhaps boosted by the lack of time he has spent in Division One of the Championship and while he has opened in the past, he predominately bats at three for Nottinghamshire.
He is the best fit of the possible options to replace Crawley should England drop the Kent opener. While both are enjoying decent seasons back in the county game, neither Dom Sibley nor Rory Burns have been particularly dominant this summer. Keaton Jennings’ struggles with England were so extreme and not that far in the past that a recall at this point still feels premature while Harry Brook – without doubt the standout domestic batter in the country this year – has not fared that well opening the batting for Yorkshire, enjoying most of his success in the middle order. Duckett’s recent success may have come at three but the switch to opening should be less drastic for him than for someone like Brook.
Earlier this year, Duckett admitted that he looked at some of the stats of England players picked ahead of him with a tinge of curiosity. “I’d be lying if I said I didn’t look at players’ records when they get picked,” he told Wisden.com. “A lot of players in the last few years have had significantly lower numbers than what I’ve produced over my career.”
With 22 first-class hundreds by the age of 27, an average comfortably over 40 and a recent hundred against an international attack, those thoughts have presumably yet to dissipate.
Whether it’s this series against South Africa or against Pakistan at the end of the year, Duckett is surely deserving of a proper, extended run in the England top-order.