England and Joe Root feel the positives but opening question remains
Series victory against India was a fillip as was Joe Root’s century but who opens the batting in Sri Lanka is no clearer
The players deserve their rest after a whirlwind five-Test series completed in record time, which has enchanted those able to watch it. The margin of victory, 4-1, compared with 3-1 in 2014, is a bit of a puzzle since India competed far better this time around, especially when the ball was in the hands of their pacemen and the bat in the hands of their captain, Virat Kohli. But by the Oval both those parties had run out of steam.
In at least two Tests the outcome was in doubt during the final innings. As a consequence the cricket was a terrific advert for the Martin Plan – centred on the BBC televising the Lord’s Test jointly with Sky – proposed on these pages a couple of weeks ago. At the Kia Oval there were times when the match was taken over by the drama that stems from individual landmarks. Often these are unwelcome intrusions in a cricket match. But not here. Neither Jimmy Anderson nor Alastair Cook sought the great attention that this game brought them; that is not their way. So the spilling over of emotions among the crowd and the cricketers was genuine and obviously added to the occasion. It was neither contrived nor gimmicky. Perhaps there is a lesson to be learned here for those who are supposed to be the guardians of the game.
The outcome will be a relief to Joe Root after last winter. His captaincy ledger now looks healthier since it returns to a state where he has led England to more victories than defeats (it’s 10-9 with just two draws). His century in his final innings of the summer will also reassure him. His reaction to reaching three figures was so much more animated than Cook’s on Monday and, as far as England are concerned, much more significant. Moreover he enjoyed some neat moments in the field on Tuesday; his decision to bowl the expensive Adil Rashid after tea bore fruit, as did giving the second new ball to Sam Curran.
By the end of November we will have a better idea whether this sense of progress is illusory. Teams are expected to win at home in this era; if they prevail away then that really is an advance. England begin their next Test series on 6 November in Sri Lanka, where South Africa were recently thrashed in two Tests on turning pitches. Root’s team may travel bolstered by five wins in seven Tests, yet there is still no clear idea about who bats in the top three, since the assumption now is that Root has decided to bat at No 4 come what may. This is what will preoccupy the selectors most over the next fortnight.
Oddly enough, the conditions in Sri Lanka dictate that the best place to bat is often at the top of the order, while the ball is hard and the spinners are yet to take charge, but the candidates are not rushing forward. The selectors are expected to reveal their choices on 25 September, though there have already been a few steers. At the Oval Ed Smith hinted that Keaton Jennings would stay in the team despite his very mediocre output in Test cricket this summer. There has been much talk about the elevation of Kent’s Joe Denly, whose talent Smith would have glimpsed many years ago at Canterbury. As soon as the name of James Vince began to reverberate he registered a pair at the Ageas Bowl, which was compensated for by an important Hampshire victory in the shortest game of the summer. All the while Rory Burns, the Surrey captain, in his idiosyncratic way has been scoring more runs than anybody else and he is in the unusual position of being an uncapped player more or less inked into the Test squad.
However, the case for omitting Jennings is strong. He is, by all accounts, the type of positive character who impresses coaches and selectors, but his run of failures, albeit in a very difficult summer for opening batsmen, must gnaw away at his self-belief. It is even debatable whether being selected would do Jennings any favours, let alone England. His omission, though, would probably leave the tour party with just one specialist, in Burns. Denly used to open for Kent a long time ago; Vince has previously batted at No 3 for England.
At present any county batsman with ambition should be badgering his captain or coach for a chance to open, since that is where the vacancies lie. This would apply to Jason Roy if he was ever available to play for Surrey again, while Vince, as Hampshire captain, could take that decision for himself.
There are mighty precedents and it would be greedy to expect such a transformation from the current candidates but it may be worth recalling Graham Gooch and Dennis Amiss were both middle‑order batsmen for their counties and initially for England, who thrived when they went to the top.
Five (plus one) who could replace Cook in Sri Lanka
What matters is how many you score, not what you look like. Burns has had a terrific season as batsman and a captain and must go.
Not an opener (yet); not reliable, not ugly at the crease, but he has responded to being dropped by England with runs for Hampshire in a bleak year for batsmen.
Was once an opener, who played 14 white-ball matches for England eight years ago and who has enjoyed a couple of fine seasons for Kent. That is all that is currently required.
Would not be a like for like replacement for Cook. He never opens in red-ball cricket though he can be brilliant in the white-ball game. Would ensure punters turned up on time.
Bats left-handed, has a winning smile and is a positive influence in the dressing room – just like Cook. Just lacks the runs and – possibly the talent – to replace him.
Rory James Vinceburns
A combination of Burns’ grit and Vince’s grace would be just the job.