When Zak Crawley scored that scintillating double century against Pakistan, it was widely expected that the Three Lions’ search for a No.3 was coming to an end. But with his turbulent performance in the recent past combined with the glorious return of Haseeb Hameed, England have a decision to make.
June 13, 2021, England’s miserable day at work continued, their home run against New Zealand finally came to an end on a day where their counterparts made batting look so easy at Edgbaston. While England’s reins had to come down sometime, it wasn’t expected to be against the New Zealand side, considering how the BlackCaps had perennially always faltered in away conditions.
It wasn’t expected to come, even at the expense of several top draw stars missing, including Jos Buttler, Jonny Bairstow, Ben Stokes, Sam Curran and Chris Woakes. Certainly, it wasn’t the batting that was expected to falter, considering how they had performed in the past, at home against West Indies and Pakistan. But everything had to come to an end, the cycle, the choices and the trust, which seemingly began to dim down as the series’ curtains were down and out.
England’s top three – Dominic Sibley, Rory Burns and Zak Crawley – had combined to score 362 runs out of the 802 that the Three Lions had scored in the entire series. That’s 45.13% of the runs that the team had scored but the weight, responsibility and everything ultimately tied back to them. Let me make it simpler, out of the 362 runs that the top three had scored, 238 came from the blade of Rory Burns, who was also the Man of the series, for England.
If we take out the 238 runs from the bigger picture, all that we would end up with is the 124 runs that the duo of Sibley and Crawley had scored, which paints the biggest problem for the hosts as they gear up for the Indian series. While Burns wasn’t definitely invincible before the home series against New Zealand, he certainly has become one after the series, something that can’t be quite associated with either of Sibley and Crawley, leaving England in a tough spot.
Even if the runs, the centuries and an average of 59.50 can’t consolidate Burns’ position at the top of the order, a Nathan Leamon special might well establish his place. On a Sky Sports Cricket Podcast, England’s white-ball analyst Leamon explained why left-handers are an understated part of the top-order, with over 50% of the openers being left-handers around the world, which increased to 70% in England.
As he explains, in the first 30 overs of a Test match, left-handers have a significant advantage over the right-handers, with an added protection with the LBW law to the deliveries outside the leg-stump. Even at the expense of a better umpiring system in place, Leamon insisted that the advantage for the left-handers over the right got bigger and bigger. So the focus naturally shifts to the other right-handers in the top three – Sibley and Crawley – who unfortunately haven’t quite made a stellar statement in the recent past.
Enter Haseeb Hameed, who in the past has shown that he is a naturally talented, stroke-making and elegant batsman. He fits in the bill that the Three Lions require, he has a temperament to succeed at the international level and certainly the skill-set, that he visibly showed in the County Select XI’s contest against the Indian team.
There was Ravindra Jadeja, Umesh Yadav, Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Siraj, all of them at their A-game and then at the other end, there was a calm and tranquil Hameed, who showed enough composure to crack the nut. While they only scored 220 in the first innings, the right-hander, who has renewed his career at Nottinghamshire, scored 112 of it. His innings showed what England lacked, not just definitive defending but a unique concoction of timing, placement and a proactive batter.
As an opener?
So what’s the best place for him to fit in the playing XI? Naturally, as an opener, Hameed has a strong chance of replacing Sibley, even if it came at the cost of a well-built partnership between the current two English openers. At Trent Bridge, the venue which incidentally hosts the first Test between India and England, the opener made a name for himself in the 2021 edition of the County Championship.
In just nine appearances or 15 innings, the right-hander had scored 642 runs for the Notts, averaging 45.85, with four half-centuries and two hundreds, which really isn’t the most attractive of averages. But when you look at the conditions that have been on offer in this year’s competition, the runs have not really been something that has come at ease for the batsmen, especially the openers who have toiled against both the weather and the early swirling of the deliveries, something that the country is rather well deemed for.
As a natural opener, Hameed won’t really have a tough time replacing Sibley, who has in the past two years been key for England but at a cost. Since the turn of 2020, the right-handed opener has scored the most runs in Test cricket internationally in the first 30 overs of the innings, with 423 runs at an average of 35.25. While his average has definitely tilted the argument in his favour, the lack of conversion and the slow rate of return has definitely made his game stagnant.
Sibley definitely has an appetite to bat the entire day but the question remains, will England need both their openers – Burns and Sibley – to do the same task as the rest of the team suffers to score runs? That’s where Hameed might fit in, considering how he has specifically earned himself a place in the squad on the back of his efforts in the first-class scene.
While Hameed at No.3 is a really different prospect, there stands a chance that England might do it in the first Test, considering how the opening pair of Burns-Sibley have performed in the past two years. Both Burns and Sibley have performed well in tandem, even though the scoring rate has been terribly slow but they get the work done either way.
However, at No.3, England have a bigger issue, the form and state of Zak Crawley. Crawley, who was earmarked to not just replace Joe Denly but to replace him with aplomb has certainly had his chances ruined in the recent past, after that scintillating show against Pakistan in the 2020 cricketing calendar. But since that 267, that rightfully put him on the world map, his figures are stunning and shocking.
Ever since that innings, he has walked back with scores of 9, 8, 5, 13, 53, 0, 9, 5, 2, 2, 0 and 17. That is 12 innings with just one-half century. More stunningly, only three innings where he has gone past the two-figure mark, which shows that Crawley might be one of the biggest talents in England, but at 21 his consistency has been a bigger concern than his talent.
So in hindsight, the India series can very well be the one that can help him rekindle the management’s faith in him or end his road to the English mountain. And, as it stands, it looks like the latter, considering the form that he is walking with, one that will surely put a doubt. If England do want to keep their openers intact, they might very well be looking at either Hameed or Bairstow to fill in the slot.
Bairstow has been there, done that before for the national team in the longest format, where he has scored 136 runs at No.3, most recently batting there in the series against India. In his eight appearances at one of the most crucial positions for the national team, the right-hander has an average of 17, with a high score of 52, figures that are underwhelming. While Root has played a significant number of innings at No.3 (13), his best and England’s best interest would be playing him at No.4, where his average jumps by nine runs and the high-score by 149 runs.
In Ben Stokes’ absence, England might have a big issue in the middle-order but given that their top three have been having a turbulent ride on their own, this series, in specific allows them to reimagine their top-order, which now could very well consist of a return for their prodigal son, Haseeb Hameed, who has certainly shown form in the County Championship and shown an appetite for scoring tough runs.
While it might have to come at the expense of one of the two promising players, the Three Lions have a decision to make.