This question, alongside “Can you ever drop Anderson or Broad again?”, is a conundrum for all England cricket supporters, from those populating the local cricket club bar, to the supposedly more qualified, attending the latest England selection meeting. England’s last established opening batter, Sir Alastair Cook played his final Test in September 2018. Since his retirement, England have played 44 Test matches. In 15 of those games it was Rory Burns and Dominic Sibley at the top of the order, Sibley was replaced half way through last summer’s India series. Burns has had other partners in 17 further Tests: Keaton Jennings, Joe Denly, Jason Roy, Haseeb Hameed and Zac Crawley. Burns played his last match for England in the ill-fated Ashes tour last winter and since then, Crawley alongside Alex Lees opened in the West Indies. The chopping and changing tells its own story and as we move towards the summer Test series, it is clear that the problem has not yet been satisfactorily resolved.
The debate continues as to whether county cricket is able to produce Test match opening batsmen in its current format, but the volume of runs we have seen in the first two weeks of the County Championship, with numerous centuries and a number of double centuries, suggests that there are some players demanding to be considered by the England selectors.
The numbers do not tell the whole story, but if we look at those players currently opening the batting in county cricket, one person stands out head-and-shoulders above the rest. Unfortunately it is Sir Alastair, who with a first class average of 47.31 and a Test average of 45.35 sets the bench mark. This season, at the tender age of 37 (surely not too old to make a comeback?), he has so far scored 188 runs at 62.67, with one century. Next in line is the aforementioned Rory Burns, who has a first class average of 41.19 and a Test average of 30.32. He has scored 84 runs this season at 42.00. He has the experience of 32 Tests and at 31 should be in his prime as a batter. Sibley will also still be in contention for a recall, with reports that he has been working hard on addressing some of his technical deficiencies. There is no doubting his mental resilience. However, he did not help his cause with a first ball duck in his only innings so far this summer.
Given the failure of the recent incumbents to establish themselves, perhaps it is time to look at some batters who have done their time in the county game and been able to get to grips with their strengths and weaknesses. Two of the more experienced members of that club are Adam Lyth and Sam Robson. Lyth, at the age of 34, has an average of 37.72 from 196 first class games and Robson, slightly younger at 32, averages 37.58 from 176 games. However, both have had a go at Test cricket, each playing seven matches, Lyth averaging just 20.38 and Robson faring slightly better, with an average of 30.54. Perhaps they have had their chance?
Of those yet to reach the international stage, the strongest claimants for consideration are Ben Browne and Hassan Azad. Browne has the advantage of playing in Division One and being able to watch Cook batting 22 yards from him each week. He has a first class average of 37.73 from 111 games and is at an ideal age of 31. He already has a century to his name this season. Azad is something of an oddity in modern cricket, only playing the red ball format. He is younger, at 28 and has played 43 first class games, but averages 40.66 and has 200 runs this season at 66.67. He cannot escape the fact that his runs have been scored in Division Two, but his unbeaten century to save the game against Worcestershire in round one, shows he has some grit.
Turning to those with youth on their side, a great deal of attention is being paid to Tom Haines. At the age of just 23, Haines has taken over the captaincy at Hove in the face of an exodus of experienced players. This added responsibility seems only to have strengthened his resolve and he has scored 357 runs so far this season at 89.25, with a double century in his last outing. Overall, he averages 37.53 from 36 first class games. Kent’s Ben Compton is something of a dark horse. With no shortage of cricketing genes, the grandson of Dennis Compton and cousin of Nick, he has struggled to establish himself in the first class game. At 28-years-old, he was released by Nottinghamshire at the end of last season, but has started strongly for his new county, Kent, being unlucky not to carry his bat in both innings in the second round game against Lancashire. He has scored three centuries in three innings and is currently averaging 161.5 for this season!
The likelihood is that when England bat, it will be Lees and Crawley who walk down the steps at Lord’s on the 2nd June, but with four more Championship rounds in the interim, there are plenty of opportunities for players to strengthen (or weaken) their claim, should the present incumbents continue to struggle.