It seems like a cycle that never ends. As we approach another mouth-watering summer of Test cricket, the opportunity to partner Alastair Cook at the top of the order still remains up for grabs. Since Andrew Strauss’s retirement in 2012, England have tried 11 different openers and are yet to find a long-term answer to such a significant vacancy.
Still, England will keep trying and one thing going their way is that there are several candidates all with perfectly reasonable chances thanks to excellent county form or having proven their worth on the international stage already. Here are the five leading candidates.
Of all those that are vying for the opening slot, Jennings would probably seem the most understandable choice. He was a revelation on his Test debut in India with a brilliant 112 at Mumbai in testing conditions, showing the kind of calmness and fluidity that earned him a call-up in the first place. Jennings also hit 54 in the final Test in Chennai to give England a chance of saving the match.
The left-hander was in fine early season for Durham but has tailed off slightly in recent weeks, especially in the County Championship. He still remains a vital member of his county, though, and is a regular member of the England Lions. It seems highly likely that Jennings will play in the first Test, yet perhaps not as opener. It is thought that new Test captain Joe Root will move down to his favoured No.4 slot, with Jennings going to three and therefore leaving a slot available at the top.
The move by Stoneman to leave his home county, Durham, for a move down south to Surrey was met with apprehension and disappointment by some. However, given Durham’s plight to Division One and Stoneman’s ambition to play for England, the switch seemed understandable. And it looks like one that has paid off, as the 30-year-old is in the middle of arguably his best ever season.
He has scored 862 runs so far this season, averaging an impressive 57.46 with three hundreds. In addition, Stoneman has the best strike rate (67.29) out of anyone with over 400 runs in Division One this year. If the Test selection is based on merit, then stylish left-hander Stoneman should consider himself right in the mix.
England looked to have finally found their long-term partner for Alastair Cook when Hameed sparkled on the winter tour to India. Not only did the 20-year-old score 219 runs at an average of 43.80 from his three Tests, he looked entirely comfortable against a world-class attack in the midst of what is currently considered to be the toughest Test tour out there. His momentum was halted by a fractured hand, which ended his tour.
Therefore, Hameed should have been considered an easy choice for this upcoming series. However, the youngster’s poor form since bursting onto the Test scene has made it a far bigger conundrum than the selectors hoped it would be. His slide started with a poor winter for the England Lions (33 runs from four innings at an average of 8.25 vs Sri Lanka ‘A’) and then continued into this season’s County Championship. From 12 innings for Lancashire this season, Hameed only has 214 runs at an average of just under 20, failing to pass fifty once in the process. Consequently, his Test chances are currently in the balance.
A consistent county performer, Robson has remained on the periphery of a Test recall ever since he was dropped from the England side for failing to take his chance in the summer of 2014. Like Jennings, Robson started this county season like a man possessed and has hit 534 runs from just seven Championship innings for Middlesex, averaging 76.28 and enhancing his reputation as a player who likes to start strongly to a season.
The fact that Robson’s playing time in Division One has been restricted by call-ups to the England Lions squad points to the fact that he is well in the selectors’ minds. Perhaps it would be worth giving the right-hander another chance given his fine form this season so far and the fact that he may well have learned from the mistakes made from that missed opportunity back in 2014.
Initially, it may seem that Browne is the man with the least chance of making Test selection out of the five candidates, yet his excellent recent form makes him a worthwhile option to pursue. Browne has hit 623 runs from 12 Championship knocks this season, including a superb 221 in Essex’s recent victory over Middlesex, against an attack including England duo Steven Finn and Toby Roland-Jones.
In addition to averaging an impressive 51.91 for Essex in their push for the title this year, no player has scored more double hundreds in the County Championship since the start of last season than Browne (3), as he continues to perform consistently at the top of the order. Another feature that may work in the 26-year-old’s favour is his relationship with Cook, his opening partner for Essex, with whom he has been prolific this season. The pair recently set a new record for their county by putting on an enormous 373 for the first wicket against Middlesex. And after revisiting these stats, selecting Browne for the Test side may be a shrewd move after all.