England: Who should open batting? Should Alex Hales be recalled?
Things for England to ponder ahead of West Indies series
By David Ruse
Last Updated: 10/08/17 4:59pm
England may have beaten South Africa to retain the Basil D'Oliveira Trophy - but there are still some questions to answer ahead of the three-Test series against West Indies.
'Who opens the batting?' is one of them, with Alastair Cook's 11th partner since the retirement of Andrew Strauss, Keaton Jennings, struggling for runs against the country of his birth.
But England's selectors may also be pondering whether to recall the in-form Alex Hales, who has batted down the order in red-ball cricket since an unspectacular 11-game spell as a Test opener.
Trevor Bayliss and co may be hunting a new bowling coach, too, with the side they have just beaten rumoured to be closing in on Ottis Gibson…
Who opens with Cook?
Yep - this one again. England looked some way to solving their opening batsman conundrum when Jennings and Haseeb Hameed impressed in India over the winter, Jennings hitting a hundred on his debut in Mumbai after replacing the injured Hameed, who had shown plenty of character with fifties in Rajkot and Mohali, the latter while braving a broken finger.
But Jennings' toils in the Test team - the left-hander averaging just 15.87 against South Africa - and Hameed's woes outside of them - the right-hander failing to pass 50 for Lancashire until his 14th Championship innings of the campaign, against Hampshire this week - means England are no nearer to knowing who Cook's long-term opening partner will be.
Hameed's half-century comes at a timely juncture, though, with England meeting to pick their squad to tackle West Indies later this week and assistant Paul Farbrace admitted he, Trevor Bayliss and the selectors are keeping a "close eye" on the 20-year-old, who was spotted in the team dressing room at Old Trafford during the fourth-Test win over South Africa.
Surrey's Mark Stoneman is likely to be considered, while Nasser Hussain, looking ahead to The Ashes, has suggested Middlesex's Nick Gubbins as an option. "He is not scoring a whole heap of runs but I think he will do well in Australia. He's a back-foot player, who plays the ball above his waist."
Who else will be discussed?
If Hales isn't, it's hard to see what more he can do. The Notts opener transferred his scintillating white-ball form - an unbeaten 187 in the Royal London One-Day Cup Final, plus a ton and a quite frankly ridiculous 95 from 30 balls in the NatWest T20 Blast - to the red-ball format on Monday, when he thrashed a run-a-ball 218 against Derbyshire batting in the No 5 berth.
Speaking before Hales' Championship double ton, which featured 38 fours and a six, Bumble said: "The talk on social media is that he has been devastating in the T20 Blast. He opened for England and lost his place but he is now batting in the middle order in first-class cricket. That No 5 spot could be available for someone who is box office in one-day cricket."
The No 5 spot is, of course, where Dawid Malan registered just 35 runs in four innings for England after being slotted into the side ahead of the third Test. Malan will testify to Hales, though, that going berserk in T20 cricket is a world away from flourishing at five in Tests, having seemingly been picked off the back of a rip-roaring 78 on debut in the shortest form.
Malan's Middlesex team-mate Toby Roland-Jones' spot could also be in peril. Sure, he bagged eight wickets on his Test bow at The Oval and a couple more at Old Trafford, but Chris Woakes is back fit following a side strain - striking a half-century and nabbing five wickets for Warwickshire against Middlesex - and will have earmarked that No 9 spot.
Who is England's second spinner?
It's clearly not Moeen Ali, despite Bayliss suggesting as much after he was joined by Liam Dawson in the starting XI for the opening two Tests against South Africa. Nope, Ali is England's premier tweaker, having bagged a series-high 25 wickets against the Proteas, including two five-fors - the second, at Old Trafford, sealing the series - and a hat-trick to win the third Test.
But should injury strike or England encounter a raging Bunsen, which county twirler would they turn to? Dawson may have snared Hashim Amla twice in the series just gone but he hardly lit up Test cricket, while Adil Rashid appears distinctly out of favour despite collecting 30 Test wickets across last winter's tours of Bangladesh and India.
Dawson's Hampshire team-mate Mason Crane is averaging 40-odd with the ball in the Championship but England like his character - he remained unfazed after being clubbed for boundaries by AB de Villiers in a T20I and went on to dismiss the white-ball kingpin before celebrating wildly.
How good are West Indies?
"Not very" would be the easy answer, with the Caribbean side's last Test series win - the only one in their previous 12 - coming at home to Bangladesh in 2014. In fact, West Indies have only tasted two Test victories in 17 matches since they secured a draw at home to England in spring 2015.
Plenty of big names are still missing, including Chris Gayle and the Bravo brothers and you get the feeling the tourists' batsmen won't be in their element if the pink ball starts hooping around corners in the day-nighter at Edgbaston, but a team of novices this is not. Some, sure, but not all.
Kraigg Brathwaite will offer resistance up top, while Roston Chase has made a superb start to his Test career, the Barbadian bagging an unbeaten ton and a five-for with his off-spin in his second match to earn a draw against India, plus hundreds in his last Two Tests, against Pakistan.
Kemar Roach - back in the reckoning for the first time since January 2016 - is part of a talented pace attack also featuring Shannon Gabriel and Alzarri Joseph, while West Indies are led by impressive all-rounder Jason Holder, who notched his maiden, and so far only, Test ton against England.
Who as bowling coach?
At the time of typing, it remains Gibson but the former West Indies seamer looks set to replace Russell Domingo as South Africa's head coach. "Nothing has been finalised," said Bayliss. "We haven't heard for sure that it's going ahead. But by all accounts, it sounds like it. We look at it as a positive that someone in our set-up is being looked at for a higher job."
So, who could replace Gibson? According to the Daily Mail, Jimmy Anderson, is interested in a player-coach role during The Ashes. "He'd probably do a very good job," said Sir Ian Botham. "That's the way it was done in the dressing room in the old days. When you finished playing, one of the younger guys would come up to you and have a chat."
The Telegraph has mooted Essex head coach Chris Silverwood and Middlesex bowling coach Richard Johnson as candidates, as well as former Australia seamer and Yorkshire head honcho Jason Gillespie, who was a frontrunner for the top job with England before Bayliss took it in 2015. If Gillespie is the guy, it would add even more spice to this winter's Ashes...
Watch the first Test between England and West Indies, the day-nighter at Edgbaston, live on Sky Sports Cricket from 1pm on Thursday, August 17.