Could Luke Wells Be The Answer To England’s Top Order problems?

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Photo Credit: [Mike Hewitt]/Getty Images

England’s squad for the third Test against South Africa at The Oval indicates that Tom Westley is the latest cab off the rank with regards to the selectors’ attempt to solve England’s top order problems that have plagued the team since Andrew Strauss’ and Jonathan Trott’s retirements. Westley is all set to replace Gary Ballance, with the Yorkshireman’s technique again exposed at the highest level by top-class seam bowling. The Essex top order batsman, 28, has enjoyed a prolific season in Division One of the County Championship, averaging 53.11. He has also come through the England system and sparkled for the England Lions with a 100 against the South African team at Worcester, so it was little surprise to see Westley receive a call-up.

And yet, questions remain about the England batting lineup. The tour to India towards the end of 2016 was largely a disgrace, but the steely showings of Keaton Jennings and Haseeb Hameed suggested that, finally, England had found two young top order batsman to build around. But flash forward to the first Test series of the British summer and Hameed is a man struggling for runs at Lancashire, attempted white-ball development hindering the “Baby Boycott” and his ability to value his wicket: no half-century this summer and firmly out of the picture. Jennings has had an equally disappointing summer in Division Two, but Trevor Bayliss kept faith with the left-hander. The gaping hole between bat and pad for his dismissal at Trent Bridge suggests he lacks the technique to survive against top quality pace bowling and calls for him to be replaced are growing.

Further down the order, Jonny Bairstow may be England’s second best batsman but the gloveman is unlikely to bat any higher than 5 while he continues to keep, particularly with captain Joe Root seemingly unwilling to promote himself to number three. A specialist gloveman could be brought in like the talented Ben Foakes further down the order, but the best way to allay fears of continuous collapses would be to truly solidify that top order with solid, proper batsman, bat Root at four and Bairstow five, with Stokes and Ali to provide the lower order biff.

Further down the order, Jonny Bairstow may be England’s second best batsman but the gloveman is unlikely to bat any higher than 5 while he continues to keep, particularly with captain Joe Root seemingly unwilling to promote himself to number three. A specialist gloveman could be brought in like the talented Ben Foakes further down the order, but the best way to allay fears of continuous collapses would be to truly solidify that top order with solid, proper batsman, bat Root at four and Bairstow five, with Stokes and Ali to provide the lower order biff.

Mark Stoneman’s winter move to Surrey has not dissuaded the flow of runs from his bat and he is surely next in line should Jennings, his former opening partner at Durham, be jettisoned out. The 31-year-old seems technically solid and deserves an opportunity, though Bayliss admits he has not watched him bat live, suggesting he is not in the coach’s immediate thoughts. Teammate Rory Burns is another Surrey player averaging in excess of 50, while Sam Robson and Dan Lawrence have scored well at Lord’s and Chelmsford.

 

Calls for a return for Alex Hales seem misplaced: the Notts man would be wiser to focus on white-ball cricket, where he truly excels. The England selectors have seemed reluctant to turn to Division Two but statements of weak bowling attacks are in fact wrong: Nottinghamshire, Sussex and Worcestershire boast top class seam bowlers, and to score runs at that level is no mean feat. And yet, most discussions start and end at Canterbury, many attracted by Daniel Bell-Drummond’s immense potential and stroke making ability as an opener or Sam Northeast’s steely leadership of a young Kent outfit.

Overlooked by all, however, is a left-hander with the highest average of any English player in first-class cricket this summer. A man comfortable with obdurate resistance, an exemplary leaver of the ball and someone of strong mental character, scoring runs even while others fall regularly in a team full of white ball players. The perfect candidate, then, for a spot in the fragile English batting lineup. And yet, ask any analyst of their thoughts on Luke Wells’ England chances and they will dismiss the possibility, claiming the Sussex man to be well out of contention.

He has not enjoyed the exposure of the TV lens that has raised the profile of other England batting hopefuls, indeed Wells rarely plays any form other than four-day cricket, which has perhaps hindered his hopes of greater honours. His first class average of 37.23 is not awe-inspiring but the runs he has scored have been in difficult circumstances often and is still markedly higher than that of Bell-Drummond and comparable to Westley. At 26-years-old, Wells’s mental toughness can not be doubted: he claims to be the most sledged cricketer in England (perhaps owing partly to his striking ginger hair) and he has battled back from winter knee-surgery to return to a faltering Sussex top order, where he has returned with several tremendous knocks.

At 26-years-old, Wells’s mental toughness can not be doubted: he claims to be the most sledged cricketer in England (perhaps owing partly to his striking ginger hair) and he has battled back from winter knee-surgery to return to a faltering Sussex top order, where he has returned with several tremendous knocks.

While Hameed’s white ball development has harmed his natural adhesive nature, new Sussex batting coach Michael Yardy’s white ball tutelage has instilled a greater ability in attack for Wells, whilst not diminishing his ability to defend. This was not least evident during his extraordinary 258 against Durham – a career best. A typical fighting first 100 runs of average strike rate evolved into a brutal blitz, 34 coming off one over as he raced past 200, then 250. Already in possession of a gorgeous cover drive and powerful pull, a greater range of strokes appears to have developed, accentuating his candidacy for a Test spot.

A promotion to opener has come as a result of Sussex’s fragility there, and yet Wells took to the role well, and would have been disappointed when his 42 and 43 against Leicestershire could not have been progressed any further. Championship cricket has disappeared for the moment, and yet Wells is still scoring runs, an 80 for Sussex’s Second XI in a T20 game indicative of his form and improvement; his List A best is just 23 but that will surely be improved this season or next.

Luke Wells presents an excellent portfolio for England selection debates but has so far been kept away from the discursive pieces or profiles on leading candidates to partner Cook or bat at three. You suspect, however, this will not trouble him. He will continue to make runs until he is finally noticed, and should an opportunity come around in England’s top order, we believe Wells will take it.

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