It’s been so long since the position of opener was an issue for England that it’s easy to overlook how few candidates are actually available to fill any void that may arise. Andrew Strauss and Alastair Cook have almost exclusively filled the two slots since the former’s return to Test cricket in 2008; since then, only on the tour of Bangladesh in 2010 has anyone else faced the new ball – in that case, Michael Carberry won his only Test cap in the opening game and Jonathan Trott filled in for the second Test. With the retirement of Strauss, a problem has surfaced which many failed to even consider in any depth. Imagine if Mark King suddenly decided he’d had enough of playing slap bass; Level 42 would have a tricky issue to solve.
As Trott has declared that he has no ambition to open the batting (a job that he’s effectively been doing for a while with Strauss’s struggles, but the psychological cushion of batting at first drop appears to suit the Warwickshire man, and if there’s one man’s mental issues that you really wouldn’t want to examine, it’s his), the door is open for one of two men to draw level with Carberry’s caps tally in the First Test in Ahmedabad next week. Either Yorkshire’s Joe Root or Somerset’s Nick Compton are sure to walk out with new captain Cook, presumably chasing India’s first innings total of 650/4 declared.
Neither have hitherto impressed overly in the warm-up games, Compton falling for two single figure scores in his first two attempts, and Root making 28 in the drawn game this week. While Compton had an impressive 2012 season – narrowly missing out on the landmark of 1,000 First Class runs before the end of May – he is not a specialist opener, although it is a job he has done on occasion for his former county Middlesex. As detailed previously, Compton’s rate of scoring appears well-suited to Test cricket, although the issue of having three relatively limpet like batsmen in Cook, Compton and Trott in the top three may prove to be an issue. Furthermore, at the age of 29, Compton is relatively well-advanced in years in comparison to the majority of newcomers into the Test team, and given that he has never previously appeared in a Test squad, it’s unclear whether his excellent season was a statistical anomaly or whether he has bloomed in the autumn of his career. We’re no botanists so we’re not even sure if that’s possible.
So, what of the other contender? For a start he’s young. Really young. Young enough to not remember the glory days of Byker Grove.
Root has been oft touted for a spot in the international fold since his debut for Yorkshire, evoking comparisons with Michael Vaughan (minus dancing like a tit on primetime TV and being a rubbish commentator) and drawing praise from no less than Graham Thorpe having viewed him in action on Lions tours. He bowls handy off-spin, which could be more than useful in the sub-continent, and at the age of 21 is much more of a long-term option.
However, the stats don’t really stack up to being thrust into the pressure cooker of an Indian tour as it stands. He averages just 38 in First Class cricket with four hundreds at this admittedly early stage of his career. It’s often mentioned that neither Marcus Trescothick nor the aforementioned Vaughan had stellar county records before they were called up, but they were thrust into the England set-up at a time of great transition for the national team where the emphasis was on recovery rather than success, and Trescothick had already shown his class in 50 over cricket at international level before he made his Test debut. We’ve also seen with Eoin Morgan that a middling domestic record can very easily translate into poor international performances. We’re still not sure why he’s on this tour unless it’s to provide his insight into sitting on one’s arse doing nothing for weeks on end in India.
Whatever the selectors’ decision, whoever is selected has a chance of cementing a place for the immediate future, and with next year’s Ashes already looming on the horizon like Dave Stewart’s much awaited comeback single, the stakes are high. Should neither impress, the powers that be will doubtless look upon the risky decision to pick a middle order batsman and a callow youngster to fill such a crucial position. After all, Rob Key was available and picking him would have kept Samit Patel away from the buffet for a while.