By David de Winter – Sports Editor
England one-day captain Eoin Morgan and opener Alex Hales have made themselves unavailable for the tour to Bangladesh next month. Amid widespread concern about potential attacks against westerners in the sub-continent nation, the duo have decided against travelling, despite England’s security expert Reg Dickason assuring players, support staff and press alike that the security will be up-to-scratch. Director of Performance Andrew Strauss has said that the decision to travel to Bangladesh is at the player’s discretion and will not impact on future selection but it does open the door to potential replacements, particularly at the top of the order.
There have been rumours circling that Morgan’s position as permanent limited-overs captain is under threat. I find this a ridiculous proposition. Since the debacle at the 2015 World Cup, England have gone from laughing stock to possibly the most dangerous limited-overs team in world cricket, all under the canny stewardship of Morgan (with a bit of help from coaches Trevor Bayliss and Paul Fabrace). They reached the final of the World T20 in April (only some freak hitting from Carlos Braithwaite prevented them from winning), lost only one ODI this summer (a dead rubber against Pakistan) and broke the world record for total number of runs scored in an ODI innings (444 in 50 overs) last month against Pakistan at Trent Bridge. Removing Morgan at this juncture would be an enormous step back for a team which has made huge strides forward in the past 18 months.
Morgan’s stance in not touring is all the more understandable when one considers that he has been caught up in two terrorist attacks whilst playing in the Asian sub-continent. Hales, on the other hand, is not assured of place in the Test squad so he is taking more of a risk to his international future in making himself unavailable. His position as opener in ODIs and T20s is surely assured and, after an unconvincing start to his Test career, it could be that he has had a discussion with the management and will be used as a limited-overs specialist à la Morgan and Jason Roy.
So who is to replace them? One could argue that, in the Test side, only two of the top five are guaranteed a berth (Alastair Cook and Joe Root). James Vince, Gary Ballance and Nick Compton all failed to cement their places in the team despite lengthy opportunities. Young Lancashire opener and former England Under-19 captain Haseeb Hameed has been mentioned widely. He has scored over 1,100 runs this season with four centuries at an average of over fifty. Hameed reminds me of a young Cook – patient with the requisite mental fortitude to open the batting in Test cricket. Durham’s Keaton Jennings, the leading run-scorer in domestic four-day cricket is another option after having recently scored his second Championship double hundred of the summer against Surrey. Like Hameed, he has the ability to bat for long periods of time which could be crucial in the sub-continent this winter.
In the second division, Ben Duckett has been scoring a bucketful of runs in all competitions for Northamptonshire and the England Lions and Kent’s Sam Northeast has also been on the selectors’ radar. However, is it wise to hand débuts to players in the relatively alien conditions of the Asian sub-continent? I would argue yes.
In scoring heavily in domestic cricket, the likes of Duckett and Hameed have demonstrated that they at least deserve a chance to prove themselves at the highest level. The current incumbents haven’t taken their opportunities and the England team desperately needs a consistent middle-order (and opening partner for Cook). Furthermore, Bangladesh, as a relatively weak Test-playing nation, is a better place than most to introduce rookies to the international stage. If the debutants can cement their places and get some scores under their belts in the two tests in Dhaka and Chittagong they will go into the series against India with confidence.
A different option would be to play replacement limited-overs captain Jos Buttler as a specialist batsman. Given the Lancashire keeper’s fine form in the one-day arena it is tempting to suggest a return to the Test arena. Yet when Buttler played previously his batting in all forms of the game suffered and he went noticeably off the boil. Unless he is given licence to play his natural aggressive game (which seems unlikely in sub-continental conditions), it would seem prudent for England to retain Buttler as a limited-overs specialist in order to get the most out of him in that form of the game. Similarly with Jason Roy, who is a joy to watch, but you wouldn’t want him walking to the crease at 30-3 on day one.
Morgan’s absence could potentially open the door to Kent’s Sam Billings. Since bursting onto the scene with some breath-taking innings in 2014, Billings has found opportunities limited, in the international arena at least, often finding himself on the sidelines. The three ODIs in Bangladesh are a real chance to show the selectors what he is capable of and cement a place in the side.
The only other selection dilemma concerns the third spinner spot. Moeen Ali and Adil Rashid will surely take the first two berths, so assuming England will play two spinners, they will need one in reserve. Liam Dawson didn’t cover himself in glory on his ODI debut and, having seen him in the flesh against Surrey last week, he struggled to make inroads on a fourth-day pitch, although he is a useful limited-overs player. Surrey’s Zafar Ansari was desperately unfortunate to injure his thumb at the back end of last season to miss out on touring the UAE and although he has bowled well in patches, he has had fitness issues and his batting form has suffered this summer.
Another Surrey spinner, Gareth Batty has been mooted as an option but at 39, it is a short-term option. Personally, I like the look of Middlesex’s Ollie Rayner. At well over six foot he can cause batsmen problems with his awkward bounce and he has taken over 50 wickets this summer at an average of just over 20 to propel Middlesex towards the Division One title.
For what it’s worth here’s my England Test XI and squad for the winter: Cook, Hameed, Duckett, Root, Bairstow, Stokes, Ali, Woakes, Rashid, Broad, Anderson; Jennings, Northeast, Billings, Rayner, Wood, Plunkett.
Limited Overs XI & squad: Roy, Duckett, Root, Buttler, Bairstow, Stokes, Ali, Woakes, Rashid, Plunkett, Wood; Malan, Billings, Jordan, Dawson.