England in unfamiliar territory as search for established top order goes on

Rory Burns, Keaton Jennings and Joe Denly have made up England's top three this week. With just 22 Test caps between them, it’s the least experienced top three England have fielded since 1989

Jonathan Liew
St Lucia
Tuesday 12 February 2019 09:40
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Jonathan Liew wraps up England's 2-1 series defeat in the West Indies

With hindsight, the retirement of Alastair Cook was not merely the end of a career, but the end of a bloodline. Before Cook, there was Strauss. Before Strauss, Trescothick and Vaughan. Before them, Atherton and Stewart. Before them, Gooch. Since at least the 1980s, whatever their other deficiencies, England have always been able to field an established world-class batsman at the top of the order. That chain was finally broken at The Oval in September, and there’s no telling when it will resume.

This week, England’s top three have been Rory Burns, Keaton Jennings and Joe Denly, who possess just 22 Test caps between them. Going back through the records, it’s the least experienced top three England have fielded since 1989, when a rookie Alec Stewart and Wayne Larkins opened the batting, with Rob Bailey at first drop. Even then, there were mitigating factors: Graham Gooch had a broken hand, Stewart was clearly of Test class and a promising young opener called Michael Atherton was waiting impatiently in the wings.

Three decades on, there are no such comforts. This is where we are, more or less, although quite how the picture will look in a few months’ time is anybody’s guess. This is starkly uncharted territory: with just one more Test and two more innings to fine tune their batting order before this summer’s Ashes, none of their current top three are guaranteed to feature in it.

Jennings, it feels safe to say, will not. Dropped in Antigua and then recalled in St Lucia in one final desperate fling, nothing Jennings has shown in the last few Tests has given England supporters the remotest confidence in his quality. He made 8 and 23 here, hasn’t passed 30 for more than three months, and more importantly has looked utterly adrift: unable to put away the bad balls, unable to keep out the good ones. He will be fortunate to play for England again.

Denly’s 69, meanwhile, has complicated matters. It was just accomplished enough to keep the selectors interested, but not enough to nail down his place. He has offered big chances in all four of his Test innings to date, and had he been caught by Shimron Hetmyer at third slip early on Monday, he too may have been heading for a swift exit. His dismissal, too, bore the ring of skewed judgement: taking a wild swish at a tiring Shannon Gabriel and getting a thin bottom edge.

In between, though, he looked supple and busy: crisp cover drives and straight drives, good intent, sound defence, an even focus, everything – in short – that Jennings has failed to offer. “It felt good from ball one,” he said. “Amazing to spend a bit of time out there and get that first fifty under the belt. The hundred was in the back of my mind, I’m not going to lie. It was a pretty tame ending, wasn’t it?”

Were the Ashes to start in a month’s time, Denly’s pretty supporting role would probably have earned him a berth. As it is, a long and potentially bumpy six months stretches before him. After the Test series comes the white-ball leg of the tour, and then in mid-March he will jet straight to Kolkata, where he will join up with the Knight Riders for his first season in the Indian Premier League.

There, alas, he will most likely be spending his time on the sidelines. Kolkata have Sunil Narine, Chris Lynn, Shubman Gill and Robin Uthappa to fill the top order slots, and after an indifferent Big Bash it’s quite possible he could play less than a handful of games. He will return to Kent in mid-May, assuming he isn’t picked for England’s World Cup squad, and then will have around half a dozen first-class games to find some red-ball form. To put it another way: plenty can go wrong for Denly between now and August, and scoring 69 against a tiring attack in a dead rubber isn’t going to protect him against it.

Burns is the most secure of the three, owing partly to his 84 in Barbados but also to some nebulous sense that he “looks the part”. He certainly seems to be a better judge of his off-stump than Jennings or Denly, and has shown poise and occasional class in his six Tests, but then they said the same about Mark Stoneman. As good as he looks, Burns averages 25 so far and has found some exceptionally silly ways to get out. Clipping the first ball of the day straight to square leg was hardly going to mute his doubters.

And yet, none of these complaints really addresses the burning issue, which is that there probably is no failsafe solution. England have tried them all: they’ve picked on raw potential and solid county pedigree, on one-day flair and old-school resilience, on numbers and gut feel. They’ve picked youth and experience, left-handers and right-handers, players they’ve tried before and players they haven’t. They’ve picked No 3s as openers and No 7s as No 3s. Still, the heir to Strauss and Cook and Trott and Vaughan stubbornly refuses to surface.

Rory Burns is the most secure of the three – for now at least

One principle they probably have settled on for now is picking specialist top-three players. Ben Stokes, Moeen Ali and Jonny Bairstow have all had their go, and Jos Buttler was even earmarked for the role in Sri Lanka, but Bairstow’s drop down the order probably brings an end to that experiment. This is a historically difficult era for new-ball batting all over the world: averages are at a two-decade low, and so far in 2019 Test openers have produced just a single century in 58 innings (by Joe Burns in Canberra). England appear to have concluded that if two openers can’t protect the middle-order, then three just might.

All of which means another new opener will probably be in place by the time Ireland arrive at Lord’s in July. Jason Roy could force his way in with a decent World Cup, especially if Surrey can be persuaded to bat him further up the order. Nick Browne of Essex had a poor 2018, but three good seasons before that. Ben Duckett should be revitalised by a move to Nottinghamshire, but still hasn’t quite been forgiven for vomiting over Trevor Bayliss during a flight in Australia last winter. Max Holden and Haseeb Hameed are there if England want to take a chance on the next young thing, James Vince and Mark Stoneman if they want to throw themselves back on the mercies of an old flame. Then you have Nick Gubbins, Daryl Mitchell, Sam Robson, even Ian Bell.

It could be any of them. It could be none of them. This, in many ways, is the crux of England’s dilemma: they’re two matches away from the biggest Test series of them all, and nobody has the faintest idea who’s going to start it. Often, the imagined comforts of the past are little more than musky nostalgia. But we’re entering a cold new world here, and I think I preferred the view from the old one.

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