It would not be rash to say that Tom Westley is currently in trouble. After starting brightly on his Test debut against South Africa at The Oval, where he scored 25 and 59 against a strong attack, he has since scored just 57 runs in five innings. And given that he is now failing regularly against a weaker West Indies bowling unit, Westley is fast running out of time to secure a place on the plane to Australia.
What is perhaps even more worrying with Westley is the way he is getting out. Since that Oval Test, he has been caught on the crease playing the ball with an angled bat instead of a straight one. At times he has got away with it, on other occasions it has cost him his wicket. The bottom line is that he can’t continue in such a way.
Yet there is a lot about Westley to like and just as much that offers hope that he will be a successful Test player. Firstly, he is obviously talented. No player averages over 53 in Division One this season without having plenty of ability. Westley has been a vital part of Essex’s resurgence over in recent times and his debut at The Oval proved that he has the talent to make the big step up from county cricket to the Test game.
In addition, he has a good temperament. Westley seems a man unflustered by hostile situations and refuses to be distracted by what goes on around him. Even in his interviews, the Essex man comes across and a calm and laid-back individual. It’s a trait that has served many a player well in their Test career before and is one that should not be underestimated, given the hectic world that Test cricket is. He is also a man who likes to get his head down at the crease, and given the criticism that has come England’s way about impatience in their batting, that also has to be seen as a plus.
So there are traits about Westley that point to the need of having more patience with him and his troubles. As a result of the continuous failures of finding a reliable opening partner for Alastair Cook, we are perhaps too hasty at the moment in England in writing off players after a difficult start. There seems to be a mentality of ‘oh well, he’s no good, let’s try the next guy in line’, and, in the process, not allowing a player with potential the chance to develop.
Admittedly, England’s selectors are much more lenient in giving newcomers time to improve and the policy of ‘one game too many, rather than one game too few’ has been a cornerstone of selection for some time now after the ruthless streak with players in the late 1980’s and throughout the 1990’s.
Yet one has to ask, why are we having such problems with making good County performers into even better Test players? It surely can’t be a question of talent and if it was, players wouldn’t be making the runs in county cricket that they are. Yes, Test cricket is a step up but these players need help in order to make such a transition with less difficulty.
So this, surely, points to the coaching. Is enough being done within the England coaching staff to help the newcomers succeed at a level where different and more frequent questions are being answered of a player? On the basis of how many have tried and failed in England’s batting order since 2014, there isn’t.
It is becoming increasingly well-known that attention to technique, such a key feature to a successful Test player’s game, is not necessarily the priority in the England camp at the moment. The absence of a specialist technical coach amongst the support staff has led to the players having their own game exposed and subsequently scrutinised. Westley is the latest player whose technique has been found out.
As is currently well documented, the 28-year-old is having problems with the direction in which his bat is coming down. To a full delivery, instead of showing the full face of the bat down the ground, Westley’s bat is arriving at an angle from first slip to mid-on. Most likely, the flaw has come from his strong and preferable on-side game, yet he is now either playing far too much around his pad or slicing shots into the slip/gully region.
It is a major technical problem that is putting his chances of making his first Ashes tour in serious doubt. Yet it can be fixed and this is where the coaching staff, particularly Mark Ramprakash and Graham Thorpe, now have to earn their money and prove their credentials as coaches. Westley is a player that can be mended with the right advice and if the required changes are made, he and England could reap the benefits for years to come.
Of course, Westley has to be willing to make those adjustments and must also be receptive enough to take on new ideas. Yet this could be a stumbling block. Before the second Test against the West Indies, Westley told ESPN Cricinfo that he trusts his game enough to turn his fortunes around.
“I score consistently through the leg side so that’s not something I’m too concerned about,” said the Essex man. “I speak to Keith Fletcher (former England captain and one of Westley’s mentors) a lot. It’s the same advice. Keep it simple. Try to implement what you’ve done at Essex. I spoke to him briefly yesterday about a few things I try to tick off. I’ve done it from a young age. For instance, a big thing for me is my balance so I was disappointed to be lbw in the last game because the leg side is a massive strength of mine and it was disappointing to get out that way. I may get out lbw several times a year but generally, I score a large volume of runs through the leg side. Everybody has their check list before a Test and a big thing for me is my balance. Then everything takes care of itself.”
Westley may have seemed unworried before that game but he must be anxious now after his two dismissals at Headingley. And if he isn’t, he should be. His dismissal on the first day, a loose attempt at a drive to a full Kemar Roach delivery, underlined his faulty technique to straighter balls, and his waft well outside off stump in the second innings emphasised his weakness in his off-side play as much as it did his fragile state of mind.
The modern cricketer can thrill, excite and entertain but they can also frustrate through stubbornness. Gary Ballance said last summer that he was not willing to change his problematic technique and consequently he again struggled, this time against South Africa, and is now facing another stint out of the England side, albeit caused by injury. Westley can ill-afford to go down the same route.
The bottom line is that Westley needs help. Yet the first part of solving a problem is admitting there is one. His Essex team mate, Alastair Cook, is a man who has benefitted from admitting his technical faults, as well as being receptive enough to seek help. And the benefits have been there to see.
Westley must do the same in fixing his technical problems if he wants to go to Australia because, at the moment, his is fast running out of time.