With the continued problems England’s test team are facing intheir middle-order, a possible solution is gaining momentum: selecting Ben Foakes as a specialist keeper.
England’s batting woes in their top order have been well documented this summer. While three places in the top five have been under intense scrutiny, looking ahead to the Ashes series in November, Mark Stoneman and Dawid Malan now have their places on board the plane bound for Brisbane intact (albeit with no guarantees of a long run in the side). However debate continues over whether Tom Westley should make the 16-strong touring party at all.
The bottom line is, England need more runs out of their top order to give themselves a fighting chance in the Ashes. First innings runs, as always, will be key to success on the flat tracks of Australia, and England must find a way to get their top run scorers into the danger areas of the batting line-up which are currently frequented by shaky players low on confidence.
Although Ben Stokes has proved that he would be more than capable of fulfilling the number five position after another summer of superlative displays with the bat, England should leave him at six, especially as he is likely to bowl more with his suitability to Aussie pitches.
England could also turn to the other world class batsman in their line-up currently batting too low down the order: Jonny Bairstow.In Bairstow, England have a ready-made middle order batsman who has been one of their only consistent performers in the last 18 months. He has become a world class batsman, and England badly need him to perform Down Under. England will argue that Bairstow should be batting at seven for the foreseeable future for several reasons: As he’s keeping, he needs to bat lower down in case he’s just spent a day-and-a-half in the field; There’s no point taking the gloves off him now because he’s worked so hard at it, and has got his standards up so high that he hasn’t dropped a catch all summer;They may also argue that robbing him of the keeping responsibilities would deal him a psychological blow so acute that his batting would then suffer, leaving him unable to concentrate whilst glaring enviously at the man given the responsibility behind the stumps.
Whilst there’s no doubt that Bairstow’s keeping has improved demonstrably – and it would indeed be a real kick in the shins to take away his keeping responsibilities – the fact is, his value to this England team is scoring top order runs. He could readily slot in at number four if somehow the England management were able to convince their captain to move up to first drop. If Bairstow was to bat at 4 to still be able to operate behind the stumps at full tilt would be a big ask. My solution would be to bring in a specialist keeper further down. England have an embarrassment of riches in their lower-middle order what with Stokes and Moeen Ali in their side, why not use this to their full advantage? Ali’s stats batting at number seven are phenomenal. In fourteen innings there he averages 68.54 with three tons and three half centuries. It has not gone unnoticed that when he bats in the top four he bats like a number 8, when at 8 he bats like a number 4. So what about at 7 then? It could be the perfect slot for him.
This would also mean that if England did bring in a new face to take the keeping gloves, England would be perfectly able to slot him in at number 8 and give that player the luxury of being able to concentrate on perfecting his trade in the field with little pressure on his batting.
Ben Foakes of Surrey has had an excellent year at the Oval. In first-class cricket this summer he is averaging a fraction under 48, plus his one-day form was even better (he scored 482 runs at 96 in the RL one-day cup). Even his 42 not out against Somerset in the penultimate Championship match to steer his team home under duress from a pumped up Somerset attack desperate for survival points shows he has the stomach for a fight – and if there’s one thing this England team will need in Australia, it’s fight.
When Alec Stewart stated last year that Foakes is the ‘best wicketkeeper in the world’, a lot of expectation came Foakes’ way. Impressively, ever since then his batting has improved even further, whilst maintaining his exceptional performances with the gloves.
Several changes would need to be put into place to be able to incorporate Foakes into the lineup: Moving Root to number three, prising the keeping gloves out of Bairstow’s not inconsiderable grasp, then asking him to bat at number four. England’s lack of creativity when it comes to selection in recent times makes it unlikely any of these things will happen and Foakes will carry the drinks all winter; if only they had the conviction to roll the dice occasionally, they might just find out what incredible potential they have at their disposal.