England’s top order remains a hot mess; so who deserves a second chance?

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Having outclassed India last summer with four victories from a possible five in the home series, the England Test side was looking forward to spending a winter overseas with successive series against Sri Lanka and the West Indies.

One of the key questions for national selector Ed Smith and head coach Trevor Bayliss was this: how do we fill an Alastair Cook-shaped void? It was going to take some work to find a suitable replacement – if there is one – following the retirement of England’s highest Test run scorer, and that has showed.

While England proved too much for Sri Lanka with a series whitewash before the turn of the year, the West Indies wrapped up a series victory with wins in the opening two Tests.

Cook’s retirement has led to a shake-up at the top of England’s batting order, with Keaton Jennings being joined by Rory Burns and Joe Denly for the West Indies series.

Jennings’ struggles against pace bowling have been exposed once again in the Caribbean and it’s hard to see how he can remain in the side for now, while Denly did make an impressive 69 in the second innings in St Lucia after three failures.

Denly’s call-up was supposed to be an audition for the Ashes series this summer, with Cook himself backing the Kent batsman to impress, and that final effort of the tour may well earn him another chance in the summer.

Burns’ high score of 84 in Barbados, meanwhile, was surrounded by low scores.

England have tried and discarded plenty of batsmen in recent years. Here we take a look at three possible options who may earn another crack at the highest level…

Dawid Malan

Malan’s highlight with the England Test side has to be the third Ashes Test in Perth in 2017, where he scored 140 and 54 at the WACA.

He looked calm and assured on such a tough pitch, and with the 31-year-old also scoring 56 in the second Test and 62 in the final Test, Malan was the best of a bad bunch for England in that series.

Following the 4-0 series defeat, however, Malan struggled and was eventually dropped. He scored a duck against New Zealand in Christchurch before hitting only six against Pakistan at Lord’s. His last Test came against India in the summer, but scores of eight and 20 – as well as three dropped catches – saw him axed.

After he was dropped, Ed Smith suggested that Malan was more suited to overseas conditions, and Malan responded by saying that he couldn’t understand the reasons for his exit. Having produced a ton at the WACA, maybe he had a point. Malan has proved he can hit big numbers on tough occasions.

James Vince

Vince entered the England Test fray in the summer of 2016 and had a shaky start, scoring a total of 54 in three Tests against Sri Lanka.

The 27-year-old continued in similar fashion in four Tests against Pakistan, with 39 and 42 his best scores across the matches.

Despite his poor start, Vince travelled to Australia for the Ashes a year later. The 83 he struck in the first Test showed real promise, but he failed to add anything else of note during the series. We shouldn’t be too harsh on the Hampshire batsman, though; he was far from alone in that regard.

In 2018, Vince hit 76 in the second Test versus New Zealand to show signs of a resurgence, and went on to score 207 for Hampshire against Somerset and top their batting averages for the county cricket season.

The closest Vince has come to another call-up since the Tests against the Black Caps was against India, when he was back-up for the injured Bairstow in the fourth Test. He remains on the fringes but is perhaps the most naturally gifted of England’s discarded batsmen and will definitely be considered again.

Gary Ballance

Ballance first came into the Test side in 2014 to replace Jonathan Trott, and he wasted no time that summer in forging a name for himself as a big-hitter.

The 29-year-old produced an unbeaten 104 and 74 in two Tests against Sri Lanka, before following that up with 71, 110 and 156 in the first three Tests against India.

From then on, Ballance continued to provide key innings for England, such as against the West Indies when he scored 77 and 81 not out.

Towards the back end of 2016, however, the 29-year-old managed 49 runs in three Tests against Pakistan and Bangladesh and was subsequently dropped until July 2017.

On his return, Ballance improved slightly but a high score of 34 against South Africa was not enough to keep him in the team.

The concern with Ballance is that, like Jennings, bowlers have simply worked him out at this level. He scored plenty of runs for Yorkshire before his last recall, but had made no discernible change to his method; the feeling now is that if he is to earn another chance he must address the issues that the very best have been able to exploit.

After the conclusion of the third Test against the West Indies, England’s only Test match before the Ashes comes against Ireland at the end of July.

There is a lot of cricket to be played between now and then – including a World Cup campaign – and Smith, Bayliss and James Taylor must keep their options open before then. Denly and Burns have failed to stand out in the role, and there are others gone before who should be considered for a recall.

By Jonny Whitfield

 

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